Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33:25-26
The rules of owning Jewish slaves are iterated in this week’s haftorah. The prophet Jeremiah rebukes the people for disobeying the special rules governing holding Hebrew slaves (various rules for slave ownership, slave families, and other people-as-property rules appear in this week’s parsha; along with rules about handling interpersonal grievances like harming or killing each other).
According to the Torah, Jewish slaves must freed and debts cancelled every seven years, preventing the indefinite indentured servitude of a Jew to his fellow Hebrew.
Following Nebuchadnezzar’s conquering of Jerusalem, the Jewish elite freed all their Jewish slaves in an attempt to gain holy forgiveness (as well as secure additional fighting power against the onslaught of Babylonians). But as soon as the siege abates, the slave owners reneged on the promise—and re-enslave those who just helped turn the tide of the battle.
Jeremiah forewarns that those who retrieved their slaves back by force would be handed over to the enemies who were to soon be back to conquer the city, laying Judah to waste.
When we think about the epic plagues wrought upon the Pharaoh for holding Hebrew slaves, it’s strange indeed to think about Jews holding other Jews (or anyone else for that matter) as slaves after that experience. However, we are talking about a very different time on this planet—taking conquered people as spoils of war, considering the children of indentured servants as property, being able to trade daughters for goods was all commonplace practice.
That we had any kind of governance of ethics for these things was really rather forward-thinking for the time; that individuals had legal recourse if they were treated (even worse) than they could expect was a unique product of the rule of law of the Torah. So while surely this isn’t a high point in our ideological history, we did lay the groundwork for a conceptually different framework of human rights—which does help explain why Jews were (and continue to be) such a significant force in our own civil rights movements.
Casey (Kefira) McCarty is a published author living in Ohio. She is the Assistant Director of the Columbus Idea Foundry, a community workshop space, and is an artisan who crafts jewelry, Judaica and fine art available online and in Central Ohio galleries and boutiques. You can find her online shop at www.sinemetudesigns.etsy.com