Mishpatim: Laws and justice; Slavery and arranged marriages

This week we study the epic portion of the Bible starting in Exodus 21 known as Mishpatim משפטים meaning laws or rules.  This section, containing 53 distinct commandments, comes just after the Divine revelation at Sinai and giving of the Ten Commandments.

Mishpatim is a continuation of the law giving at Sinai.  All the rules of the Bible, civil, financial, or spiritual, are equally Divine. The details of when the owner is liable for damage done by his ox, just like the laws against idolatry, are from God.  The Bible puts religious and civil laws together, teaching us that a crime against your fellow man is disrespectful to his Creator.

Amazingly, the first set of rules this week deals with a slave.  God is giving the Jewish people, who had just been miraculously freed from centuries of vicious slavery in Egypt, rules about owning slaves.  At first glance this defies common sense.  But the Bible is eternal wisdom and not haphazard.  There must be deeper reasons for this shocking transition.

Biblical crime and punishment

First, understand that in the Biblical society there was no concept of imprisoning people as a punishment.  Sins against God required atonement, by an offering brought to the Tabernacle, later to the Temple in Jerusalem.

The person offering the animal confessed his or her mistakes and contemplated that really they should be the one sacrificed for the sin, but the animal was taking their place, like a scapegoat.  The sacrifice was a catalyst for repentance and whole-hearted change.  The focus was on self directed rehabilitation and personal growth, not punishment.

For very heinous sins such as adultery and murder, there was a capital punishment, but it was administered on an extremely rare basis by the Jewish courts.  For some men death of the body is the only full rehabilitation for their soul, since they have publicly defied the laws of Bible.  Their execution by the court rectifies the damage they have done to their soul and their society.

In practice, capital punishment was almost unheard of.  The Mishnah (Makkot 1:10) and Talmud (Makkot 7) debate if a Jewish court that hands down a death sentence even as rarely as once every 70 years is being inappropriately bloodthirsty.

The Jewish courts only admitted eyewitness testimony.  No hearsay, DNA or circumstantial evidence, or expert witnesses were involved.  The accused had to have been warned that his act would carried the death penalty, and he had to acknowledge and accept this warning.  Only crimes carried out with specific knowledge and intent in front of other men could result in execution.

The judges would fast and meditate before handing down a verdict in a capital case.  Amazingly, a unanimous verdict for guilt would be overturned.  The Bible itself states “The congregation shall judge . . . and the congregation shall save” (Numbers 35:24–25) which is directed at the court to try any argument to save someone accused of a capital crime.

Maimonides, a heavy hitter in Jewish law, writes: “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death” (Sefer Hamitzvot, lav 290).  We see already that Jewish criminal procedure was radically different than what passes for justice within modern courts.

For crimes against other men, the Bible demands compensation.  Even “an eye for an eye” (Ex. 21:24) really means payment for the damages, pain, embarrassment and lost wages of the victim.  The Talmud (Bava Kamma 84a) brings many proofs for this.  Jewish law is not like the ancient Hammurabi code, which required literal removal of an eye as revenge.  Revenge itself is forbidden by the Torah (Leviticus 19:18).

Sins against people required asking forgiveness and fixing the relationship.  Disputes about money went to the local court, and the party in the wrong had to pay the damages the court assessed.  Arbitration and compromise is encouraged in Jewish law.

Remember, there were no prisons for the ancient Jews.  If someone stole and simply could not return the money (it was spent or the animal eaten), they did not go to jail and become a burden on society.

Instead they had to work to pay restitution.  They became the “slave”, really an indentured servant, to the party to whom they owed the money (Exodus 22:2).  The man was not truly owned by the master, the master bought only the right to his work, and never owned his actual body.

In addition, a Jew who had nothing could also sell himself, meaning the right to his labor, to a wealthy man (Leviticus 25:35).  Servitude due to theft or poverty was explicitly temporary (Exodus 21:2) for up to six years at a maximum. The servant went free on the sabbatical year, even if he had not paid his debt in full.  (See also Talmud Kiddushin 14b, Arakhin 30b).  If he enjoyed his situation, the servant could elect to stay on longer with his master, until the Jubilee year, when he finally had to leave (Ex. 21:5).

Ancient slavery and modern excuses

To modern people, the word slavery means a barbaric institution profoundly offensive to human dignity.  This is completely true.

No one is saying slavery should be allowed, just that we need to study history without the subjective blinders of our present experience.  Remember that our current assumptions are the product of our limited modern experiences.

This is what author C.S. Lewis called chronological snobbery: the belief that ‘the thinking, art, or science of an earlier time is inherently inferior to that of the present, simply by virtue of its temporal priority or the belief that since civilization has advanced in certain areas, people of earlier time periods were less intelligent.’

The past 200 years, during which slavery was thankfully eliminated from most of the globe, is but a minuscule blip in the overall human experience.  For almost all of human history, it was absolutely normal for human beings to enslave one another.  That it was common and was considered absolutely essential does not mean that it was right.  (A man must question if the policies considered essential today are morally correct).

In ancient Sparta, they proudly had 70 slaves for each free citizen, while in classical Rome slaves were about a third of the population.  Their entire economy was based on attacking and enslaving others.

Slavery was very common in all areas of the world.  African tribes routinely enslaved one another and profited from the slave trade.  Europeans enslaved one another as well; check out the origin of the name for the ethnic group Slav.

In some places, slavery or the equivalent continues today.  Visiting workers can be abused and enslaved in certain countries that look down on foreigners and prevent them from having real rights.

Even in first world western countries there are men who are effectively slaves to their jobs, debts, or government.  No one says a word about these men.  There are men in relationships with the burden of total responsibility but with zero authority.  That is the same thing as slavery and yet it is accepted as normal in today’s society.

In the United States of America especially millions of men today are imprisoned, dehumanized, and harnessed for their labor to make profits for the government run prison systems.  You may be tempted to excuse by saying they were prisoners and need to pay for their crimes.  The ancients also had many excuses for enslaving other people.

We who presume to judge ancient societies should wonder what educated people 2000 years in our future will think about our modern criminal “justice” system.  The government, acting in our name, incarcerates vast multitudes of people, mostly men and disproportionately from minorities.  These men are locked for decades in purposefully inhumane conditions.  Prison is designed with the goal to subjugate, isolate and dehumanize men.

Human beings, created in the image of God, are treated worse than animals.  If an animal shelter treated dogs and cats like American prisons treat men, there would be mass protests.  The government, claiming to act on behalf of all citizens and in the name of justice, forces men into cages, denies human beings appropriate health care, education, exercise, and even the ability to freely observe their religions.

The modern “justice” system denies men the very rights the constitution guarantees to all citizens, by branding them non citizens.  They are “cons” now, or felons.  Felons lose their right to vote and to self defense.  The authorities cut men off from families and friends.  They place men into situations with a high risk of violence and abuse from other inmates and guards (God forbid).  All this injustice the name of justice!

What will future people generations when they learn that in our allegedly equal and just society, men were much more likely than women to be convicted and received longer sentences for the same crimes?  When they analyze our date and see that men with dark skin or those living in poverty were arrested and convicted more often?

What will the future people think of a nation that eagerly locks men up for decades on nonviolent crimes, but also lets violent offenders out on parole immediately, where they repeat their brutality?  That criminalizes victimless regulatory infractions that abound in laws that average men cannot even understand?  That overlooks all manner of heinous crimes when they are committed by the rich or powerful?

We should wonder how the future will judge us for locking up useful, able bodied men in prisons to rot.  Many American prisons have work programs, which is actual slave labor, even when there is some minimal compensation.  Sealing a man away with hardened criminals as his only companions makes him more likely to return to crime.  He does not, as politicians want you to believe, “pay for his crime” and come out after years of lock up as a reformed, rehabilitated citizen.

Rather, he becomes more and more at odds with regular society, which now brands him a criminal, a felon, a convict.  He isn’t a man anymore, he is a con.  It’s hard for him to get solid employment with a record.  He can’t even vote, adding insult to to injury the government inflicted on him.

His ties with his family are permanently frayed or utterly severed.  His children grow up without a father figure, a tragic loss overlooked by society.  They look for guidance on the streets, often with criminal gangs, perpetuating generations of criminal and social problems and drug abuse.

Modern “criminal justice” is inherently unjust, as the state brands men as criminals, which allows the state to treat men as something worse than animals and deny them the rights of citizens.  Then the government can easily enslave them and make billions in profit from the labor of men behind bars.

Think hard, modern people… What exactly will future historians think of “justice” in present day USA?

Biblical Justice

Again, in the ancient Biblical society there was no jail, penitentiary, lock-up, or debtors’ prison to punish men.  There was a very rare, short term situation for a known murderer who was a danger to society but could not, due to technicalities, officially be convicted in court.  He was locked away to protect the public, and overfed until his stomach burst and he died (Sanhedrin 81b).

Rashi also explains that a man could be sequestered temporarily to convince him to divorce an inappropriate wife or while waiting to see if a man he injured would pass away (Pesachim 91a).  But the Biblical society never used jail as a punitive measure.

Without jail, Jewish criminals were never isolated or ostracized from regular society.  They were not branded or labelled a con.  The Jewish police and courts treated him as a human being, the Torah commands them to treat him as a man and their brother even after he is convicted, and even if he is given lashes (Deut 25:3).

The police and judges in the ancient Biblical society did not have an “Us vs Them” mentality regarding the criminals.  The courts were local.  The judges were men from their own tribes, their extended family.  Agents of the Jewish state did not murder men or crush their souls in the name of justice.  These men were not “others”, they were part of the tribe.  There was no police brutality, no coerced confessions or plea bargains, no men “accidentally” dying in police custody or during arrest.

The Biblical “slave” system was actually the criminal working off his debts with the very family he stole from.  The “slave” has to get to know the people he robbed, and help them with their work and daily chores.  He gets to understand that the people he wronged are real human beings.

He can’t help but grow close to them, feel remorse and resolve to change.  And they see that he is not a monster, not a criminal, but a man in need of help and guidance.  Over years of working and living together, the thief and his victims become cordial, friendly, and even like one family.  Some “slaves” would choose to stay on even after the Sabbatical year and would freely continue this arrangement until the Jubilee year (Ex. 21:5).

The “master” was required to treat the thief like the human being that he is.  He cannot make the slave do meaningless or unnecessary jobs, he has to make good use of his abilities and skills, and involve the man in his business as an active partner.

Not only does that, but when the slave has paid his debt or the sabbatical year comes, the master gives him parting gifts (Deut. 15, Kidushin 17a).  His wife and children are always with him, indeed the master must provide for them too (Lev 25:41 and Ex 21:3).

The master needs to feed his servant at least the same quality food and provide the same accommodations that he himself uses.  If there is only one bed in the house, the “slave” gets to use it, if there is only one steak for dinner, the “slave” gets to eat it.  This leads our sages to note: “one who buys a slave in truth buys himself a master” (Kiddushin 22a from Deut. 15:16).

Naturally, you are beginning to realize that Biblical “slavery” was not the same barbaric institution that existed in antebellum America and throughout the entire world until recently.

The Bible teaches us a way that “slavery” (really indentured servitude) can ultimately benefit the criminal and his society.  Not that we should try to emulate this system in modern society.  It may be that only the Jewish nation, the people enslaved and abused as part of our national origin, have the sensitivity to successfully navigate the dangers inherent in having one human being subordinate to another.

The Jewish people, after centuries of slavery, understand the true value of freedom to the human spirit.  In His wisdom, God now gives the very same people that just emerged from real slavery the rules that allow a different sort of servitude that respects the dignity inherent in every man, while still allowing the victims of crime to be compensated.  The Bible outlines a justice system that is truly just and humane.

In the ancient Jewish society, all the men were related, either as actual descendants of the 12 tribes or as converts who accepted the same faith and laws and were considered full fledged Jews.  Perhaps only in such a context could the officers and courts remember that the accused “criminal” is really their brother.  In a modern society where the state dehumanizes criminals instead, no man should have license to enslave another.

Only a society that knows and teaches that men are made in the Divine image can possibly treat men with respect even when they have victimized others.  The serious implication is that modern American society often fails to recognize the inherent dignity of man, and this is shown again and again by the actions and attitudes of the agents of the state and the “justice” system towards men.

Unlike convicts in modern America, the Jewish slave in ancient times was not pushed out of society and made into an isolated, useless pariah.  He was never branded as a convict or felon by the state, he did not lose his civil rights.  He was never beaten or suffocated or left untreated to die by law enforcement.

Instead he was always respected as a man, a brother, even thought he needed to be put into a situation where he could work to improve himself as he benefited his society and the family he wronged.  Jewish “slavery” was real rehabilitation.  Incarceration is not and never will be.  The Bible teaches true justice: improving human souls, not putting them on ice.

The Jewish “maidservant” and arranged marriage

The Bible has separate rules for a female servant (Exodus 21:7).  An extremely impoverished man may sell his minor daughter into service to a wealthy man.  Like the male servant who works to pay his debt, she works towards the set price, and can redeem herself.  She is also automatically freed when she reaches maturity at age 12.

However, the Torah anticipates that the man who bought the maidservant may want to marry her, or engage her to marry his own son (Ex 21:8-9).  If a man from the wealthier family does marry her, the maidservant has the full rights of a Jewish regular wife, even if the man has multiple wives 21:10.  Indeed, our ancient sages learn a husband’s marital obligations to his wives from the rights the Bible gives to the maidservant (Talmud, Ketuvot 47).

The Jewish maidservant concept sounds like an invitation for an arranged marriage.  However, the desires of the young woman herself are the critical factor in this institution.  The Torah states that if she is displeasing to the man who bought the right to her work, and he won’t marry her, instead he must let her be redeemed and cannot sell her (Ex 21:8).  If the woman is acting in a pleasing way, the assumption is that the man or his son will want to marry her.

The burden of performance is now on the young woman, her future is in her hands.  The choice is really hers to make.  Obviously if she does not like this man, she will not perform well for him, and once she works off her sale price she will be free to go.  But if she is interested in this man, or his son, naturally she will make a special effort to be gracious, helpful, charming, attractive, and productive in their home.

For a girl from a very impoverished family (selling a daughter as maidservant was seen as a last ditch effort before borrowing with interest, which is a Biblical prohibition), marrying into a wealthy family was a huge step up on the socioeconomic ladder.  For a father in dire straits, without the ability to put food on the table for all of the children, he is not selling his daughter as much as giving her the chance for a better future.

Our sages writing during the crusades explain that while ideally we wait until a girl is old enough to make her own decisions about marriage, in uncertain and dangerous times it is allowed for her family to plan ahead and try to find her a good match for marriage earlier.

However, unlike an actual arranged marriage, in the maidservant situation, both the man and the woman have the opportunity to get to know each other on a very real level before committing.  It may sound very appealing for the poor girl to marry a rich man, but it might not be in her best interest.

The Bible protects her interest by putting her in the man’s household before she needs to commit.  The young woman sees this family day in and day out, and learns if this wealthy family has any skeletons in the closet or corrupt character traits.  She sees first hand how this family treats those people that they might see as lower on the social totem pole*.  If they are gracious and welcoming to her when she is a mere servant in the house, they will certainly be warm and loving when she fully joins the family as a wife.  Instead of chasing money and trying to lock down a rich man for his assets, the young woman sees the full picture of the man, his character, and his family before they commit.  The Jewish maid is not marrying a man’s wallet, she is marrying the man.
*Rule in life:  A woman who is rude to the waitress and lacks gratitude will one day be rude to you, and don’t expect any thanks from her!

The ‘master’ or his son gets to see how this woman functions as a member of the household, if she gets along with others and works hard for the common good, or is lazy and rude.  In actuality this maidservant concept is very unlike an arranged marriage.

The man and woman are not starting a marriage without getting to know one another, instead they are seeing how the other acts and reacts in day to day life before making a commitment.  They forge a relationship on the practical level before trying a romantic bond.  You may be surprised to learn that the Hebrew word for family “mishpacha” is cognate to the word for maidservant “shifcha”.  The primary role of each family member is to serve the others, to help the entire family.  You family is your first tribe.

The Bible sets up a situation that allows a young woman from the very poorest family to marry up, but only after she has seen how this man really is behind closed doors and accepts it.  The man can choose to marry her, but only after he has experienced how she acts and contributes to the household.

Anyone can fake good character for a while during dating, men can easily be fooled by a woman’s smile and gracious behavior over a few months.  Only when they marry and he sees her in her daily life does he realize her true nature.  The Torah is Divine wisdom, and puts these young people together for the long term, so they can see the bad along with the good and truly know who it is they are marrying.

A real marriage is not a Disney story with a glass slipper magically bringing man and woman together.  The Bible is showing us an effective form of real life vetting.

I have briefly mentioned vetting, in the context of finding someone to join you in creating your legacy:

Men, all men, understand on some level that children are their legacy.  And they’re right.  Most men never accomplish anything that puts them into the history books.  By comparison, having a kid or two seems seductively easy.  So men decide to settle down and start a family.  Then, if they’re paying attention, the trouble starts…

Gentlemen: Jacob wasn’t a patriarch because of his wives.  Of course he married the right girls from the right family.  Actually their family of origin and city was idolatrous and their father a manipulative liar.  Jacob had to gradually wean the women away from that influence, as we explained in Rape, murder. It’s just a shot away.

Still, you have to do your part, like we learned from Jacob.  However, it’s not fully in your hands.  You make an effort and ask for Divine assistance too.  One mistake I have seen is a reliance on vetting.  Vetting is basically having a checklist for a woman to become your wife and mother to your children.  It simply doesn’t work under most circumstances.

I don’t need to get into why, because Rian Stone has an excellent serious about vetting explaining this [to Orthodox Jews nivul peh warning].  If a man vets his woman, there is a danger that he thinks he is good to go.  After all, he vetted her, he got it right.  It’s on lock.  From now on it should be smooth sailing with his traditional conservative wife and 2.3 kids…

I also wrote about our ancient Patriarch Isaac, and how he needed to see his “Debt-Free Virgin Without Tattoos” future wife Rebecca functioning appropriately as part of the household before he fully married and loved her:

Isaac brings Rivkah into his mother Sarah’s tent, took her as wife, loved her, and was consoled for his mother (Gen. 24:67).  The Bible writes events in this order to teach us eternal wisdom.   Actions before marriage.  Marriage before love… The truth of the Torah is emotional dynamite planted under the modern commercialized concept of love and marriage.

When Isaac brings Rivkah into Sarah’s tent, it was to check if Rivkah could continue in the path of Sarah, of being a modest woman focusing her energies on her own tent, her own household, not the outside world.  Our ancient sages (Breishit Rabah) teach that when Sarah was alive, the candle she lit Friday night for Shabat would stay lit all week, there was blessing in the dough, and a Divine cloud hovering over her tent.  These symbols of divine merit left when Sarah died, but returned when Rivkah took her place in the home.  [There is a lot of depth in those symbols, briefly they stand for the values of industriousness, caring for family, giving to others, and modesty].  Rivkah’s character and actions resulting in the return of these signs of blessing.  Rivkah acted like Sarah, like a mother.

This was Isaac’s long term vetting of Rivkah.  He saw that her actions and character were appropriate to be his wife and mother to his children (and to the future Jewish nation).  Only then did he marry her.  After marriage, he made the effort to love her by appreciating her talents and contribution to his household.

The lesson for modern men is that there is profound value in seeing a woman in her natural environment, in her daily life and interactions, before committing to anything with her.  This is the wisdom of the ancient institution of the Jewish maidservant.  On the surface it sounds an awful lot like an arranged marriage but in practice was quite the opposite.  Some modern men look at checklists instead of looking for red flags in a woman’s actual behavior.  They can take a lesson from how the Bible puts people together before a real marriage.


Another ancient concept mentioned in Mishpatim is the value placed on virginity.  In Ex 22:15-16, we learn that if a man seduces (with words, this was not a rape in any sense) a virgin, then when he marries her, he must give her a large dowry as if she were a virgin.  If the father or the girl objects to the marriage, the man must still pay the dowry, as he has reduced her appeal to other men.

We don’t have the space to elaborate here, but we see an awareness in ancient societies of the value of a bride’s virginity for the long term success of the marriage.  Of course, that is all patriarchal nonsense we can ignore in our modern enlightened society…

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the present mainstream experience is the only valid approach to justice or marriage.  Or anything.  You see the world through blinders placed by your modern society.  If you are willing to set aside your modern biases and look with unclouded eyes, you will find priceless wisdom in ancient traditions.


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