Thoughts to Ponder Number 73
29 Shevat, 5761; Feb. 22, 2001

The Sensitivity of the Torah and
The Power of Language

When carefully studying the commandments of the Torah, it is most important to note the emotional sensitivity used by the text not to offend any of its readers.

When discussing the "Eved Ivri" "the Hebrew Servant," the text states:

"When you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve, and in the seventh year he shall go out into freedom for nothing" (Shemoth 21:1).

This speaks about a Jew whom the court sold into servitude to make restitution for his theft (Ibid. 22:2).

A little later we read about a similar situation regarding a Hebrew maidservant: "And if a man sells his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the manservants do" (Ibid. 21:7).

Both cases speak about a tragedy; one in which a man has to sell himself as a servant because of a theft which he is not able to repay and the other about a father who has to "sell" his minor daughter out of pure poverty so that she may be able to survive and with the hope that she will marry her master or his son later on.

Careful reading, however, shows that in the first case the Torah uses the second person ("When you buy a servant…") while in the second case it speaks in the third person ("And if a man sells his daughter…").

Why the difference?

Meshibath Nefesh offers a most interesting explanation. According to the talmudic sages, the buying of a servant is not just a positive commandment but, in fact, a somewhat joyful event. The whole institution of servitude is built on the principle that one wants to help a fellowman who has fallen. Instead of the thief being put in jail, as would be the procedure in other legal systems, he is adopted by a Jewish family who will try, throughout the 6 years of his servitude, to re-educate the fallen man. By taking him into the family and showing by example how a proper family functions, the slave will, by the time he leaves 6 years later, have a different understanding of his own future and will start with new hope a new way of life. This is also born out by the fact that he must be treated with the utmost respect by the family members. He is not allowed to be abused, and even has some privileges other family members do not. For instance, if there is only one cushion available, he has the right to use it, since he must not be made to feel discriminated against by the family in even the slightest way. The fact that he may not want to leave at the end of the six years (Shemoth 21:5) is another proof of how well he needs to be treated by his "new" family. Taking such a person under one's roof is, therefore, a happy occasion. Consequently, the Torah uses the second person, ("When you buy a Hebrew servant") in other words: it speaks directly to the reader.

However, in the case of the Hebrew maid servant one cannot speak about a happy occasion.* When a man needs to "sell" his daughter out of pure poverty, however much he is helped by such a move and however much it may give his daughter a better future if she marries her master or his son, it remains a tragedy. In that case, the Torah is not prepared to use the second person, but, instead creates a distance by saying: "And if a man sells his daughter," third person. Nobody wishes his friend to be confronted with a tragedy such as the one in which he is forced to sell his daughter.

This remarkable sensitivity on the side of the Torah is not found in any other legal system.

Obviously, it is not just the case itself which is of importance (we even wonder how often this ever happened, knowing that in accordance with Jewish law the community has the responsibility to help the man such that he will never have to sell his daughter) but, above all, an attitude which the Torah tries to convey to it readers. When you speak to your fellow man about something good, you should speak in the second person: "May you have the merit to…" But when one has to confront one's fellow man with a possible tragedy, one should use a third person: "When somebody else finds himself in..."

This indeed shows great sensitivity with far-reaching consequences for human relationships.

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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