To Be an Eved Hashem

Ki li Bnei Yisrael avadim; avadei hem asher hotzeisi osam me’Eretz Mitzrayim. Ani Hashem Elokeichem (Vayikra 25:55).

At the end of Parashas Behar, Hashem declares that “the Children of Israel are My servants.” The Gemara (Kiddushin 22b) derives from here that we should only be avadim (servants) to Hashem, and not to other people. For this reason, when the time comes for a Jewish eved to be freed, if he declares that he would prefer to continue working for his owner, the Torah requires (Shemos 21:6) his master to pierce his ear, after which he continues serving until the Yovel year.

Rashi writes that the piercing is intended as a punishment to his ear that heard at Mount Sinai that we are supposed to be servants to Hashem, yet went and willingly acquired a human master. The Maharsha questions this explanation. Why is the ear punished for transgressing this commandment more than the other mitzvos that were also given at Sinai?

In his sefer Pachad Yitzchok on Sukkos, Harav Yitzchok Hutner discusses an apparent contradiction in the Gemara regarding which condition is worse, blindness or deafness. The Gemara in Nedarim (64b) teaches that a blind person is considered as if he is dead. Since this statement is not made about a deaf person, this seems to imply that blindness is a greater deficiency. However, the Gemara in Bava Kamma (85b) rules that if somebody blinds another person, he must compensate the value of the missing eyes, but if he renders the other person deaf, he is required to pay for his entire worth — not only the value of the ears. This distinction appears to indicate that deafness is the more serious deficiency.

Rav Hutner resolves the apparent contradiction by explaining that the ability to see is inherently more valuable, as evidenced by Chazal’s comparison of blindness to death. However, when the Gemara discusses the laws of damages, these halachos are calculated and governed by a person’s value if he were to be sold as an eved. Thus, when determining the appropriate monetary compensation for rendering another person blind or deaf, we must assess his diminished value as a slave due to his injuries.

The most important attribute for an eved to possess is the ability to hear, for if he is unable to hear his master’s commands, he cannot follow instructions and is effectively disqualified from working. In contrast, a blind eved may have only limited functionality, but because he can hear and obey his owner’s orders, he possesses more value than a deaf slave. Thus, while sight is more valuable to the average person, hearing is more important for an eved.

Applying this distinction to Parashas Behar, Rav Hutner notes that the Torah is specifically discussing our relationship to Hashem as avadim. The foremost quality that an eved must possess is the ability to hear, thus enabling him to carry out his master’s wishes. Because the ear is so vital for an eved, it is specifically in conjunction with the mitzvah to be servants exclusively to Hashem that a person who violates it by choosing to become an eved to another person that we pierce his ear for failing to internalize this commandment at Har Sinai.

Rav Hutner adds that this insight also helps us appreciate why our twice-daily kabbalas ol malchus Shamayim (accepting the yoke of Heaven) begins with the word “Shema,” which means “Hear.” Because we are acknowledging Hashem’s supremacy and accepting our role as His avadim, it is appropriate to emphasize the need to properly listen to our Master’s commands so that we can fulfill them and be worthy of being called His loyal servants.

Q: What is the longest period of time for which a person should commit to a job in a contract?

A: From the Torah’s emphasis at the end of Parashas Behar (Vayikra 25:55) on our status as Hashem’s avadim, the Gemara derives that we should not be avadim to other people, but only to Hashem. Tosafos comments that although a person should not willingly sell himself into slavery, from which he cannot free himself until his master releases him, he is permitted to work for someone else if he is free to quit at any time. Accordingly, the Rema rules that it is forbidden to sign a contract committing to work — even as a religious teacher or sofer — for a period of three years.

The Ibn Ezra and Shach maintain that working for up to three years is permissible, and the prohibition only applies to an arrangement lasting more than three years. The Mordechai notes that the Torah (Devarim 15:18) explains that the six years that a Jewish slave works is twice as long as a hired worker. Thus, by committing to work for more than three years, a person can no longer be considered an employee, so he becomes an eved who transgresses the prohibition against serving other people.

The Chavos Yair permits a chazzan to sign a contract spanning more than three years, for since he is using his voice to honor Hashem, he is not deemed an eved to people. However, the Ketzos Hachoshen disagrees and argues that if the Rema forbids a religious teacher and sofer to commit to work for so long, a chazzan should be no different.

The Pischei Teshuvah cites the Chasam Sofer, who allows any contract that lasts less than six years, for as long as its duration is shorter than the period of servitude for a Jewish slave it is permissible.

The Ichud b’Chidud adds that some Poskim limit the prohibition to cases in which the employee lives in his employer’s home, while others maintain that contemporary contracts are primarily intended to protect the worker’s rights, not to bind him, in which case this halachah would not apply. For all practical questions of Jewish law, a competent Rabbi should be consulted.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.