“The Hebrew Maidservant is Alive and Well”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, Parashat Misphatim (literally, “laws”), G-d sets much of the structure of Jewish civil jurisprudence before the People of Israel. Parashat Mishpatim contains fully 53 of the 613 commandments of the Torah–23 positive and 30 negative commandments.

Parashat Mishpatim contains a host of laws and regulations governing murder, kidnaping, personal injuries, injuries by animals, offenses against property, theft, damage by cattle, fires, laws of safekeeping, moral offences, seduction, witchcraft, sodomy, polytheism, oppression of the weak, loans and pledges, truth and impartiality in justice, and love of enemy. Despite this broad assortment of rules, the parasha opens, rather unexpectedly, with the law of the Hebrew manservant and maidservant. To understand how these seemingly immoral institutions operated within ancient Jewish society and is understood by Judaism, please refer to the analysis of parashat Behar, 5763-2003.

The Torah’s introductory statement in Exodus 21:7 regarding the Hebrew maidservant is rather unsettling: “V’chee yim’kor eesh et bee’toh l’ah’mah, lo tay’tzay k’tzayt ha’ah’vah’deem,” If a man sells his daughter as a maidservant, she shall not leave like the other slaves. The Torah then proceeds to inform us that if after working for the master, the maidservant is displeasing in his eyes and he chooses not to betroth her, then he must redeem her. The master may not sell the maidservant to an outsider or stranger, for he has betrayed her. However, if the master designates the maidservant for marriage to himself or his son, she must be treated in the same respectful manner that all Jewish husbands are expected to treat their wives. If the maidservant’s husband takes another wife in addition to her, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing or her marital pleasure. If he does not fulfill these obligations, then she is free to leave without payment.

At first blush, the practice of servitude, and particularly the institution of the Hebrew maidservant, appears to be rather primitive. Viewing these laws, however, within the context of their time, sheds much light on this perplexing institution. In ancient times, as well as even in certain cultures today, a woman without a dowry is unmarriagable–destined to live her life alone. The law of the maidservant ensured that every woman, no matter what her economic status, would be in a position to marry, obtaining the wherewithal to pay the required dowry.

Thus, a woman born into extreme poverty was “sold” by her father into servitude at a young age. In the household of her “master,” she now serves as a domestic, or an au pair, doing household chores, possibly caring for the children. At the time that she is acquired, the maidservant is also conditionally betrothed to the master or to the master’s son so that when she reaches the age of majority (12 and a day) she either marries the master or his son, or is set free to marry whomever she desires. But now, in return for all her work, she possesses a significant amount of money that may serve as a dowry and enable her to marry.

Instead of this being a primitive and barbaric practice, the maidservant practice is quite enlightened, ensuring that every woman has the resources to marry. Furthermore, a Hebrew maidservant goes free, not only when she reaches the age of majority. She also gains her freedom after six years of service, or with the arrival of the Jubilee year, no matter how old she may be. Freedom for the Hebrew maidservant is also gained once she shows signs of physical sexual maturity, even if she is younger than 12 years old.

There are a number of additional noteworthy principles that are derived from the biblical portion of the Hebrew maidservant. It is from this particular Torah portion regarding the Hebrew maidservant that we learn of the requirement to give a ring (or an object of equivalent monetary value) as part of the contemporary marriage ceremony. This practice is derived from the fact that when the maidservant’s master takes another wife, he has to give her money (Jerusalem Talmud, Kedushin, Chapter 1, halacha 5).

We also learn from the context of the maidservant a clear indication of the existence of an oral code. In Exodus 21:10, we learn that if the master takes another wife in addition to the maidservant, he may not diminish the maidservant’s food, clothing or the frequency of marital relations. The obvious question then arises regarding how much food, how much clothing, how much marital pleasure must a husband provide? There obviously must be established amounts that apply to these situations. In fact, these amounts are explicated and recorded in the oral commentary, filling in the details of the written code that serves as the basic outline.

One of the fundamental laws governing marriage is also derived from the case of the Hebrew maidservant–the mitzvah of Onah-– frequency of marital relations. The Talmud describes in detail how often a Jewish husband must provide his wife with sexual pleasure. Much of it depends on the husband’s occupation. The Mishnah in Ketubot 62a bases the frequency of sexual pleasure on the ability of a man to satisfy his wife and still fulfill the duties of his job. Therefore, a sailor was required to sexually appease his wife only twice a year, a camel driver once a month, a person who is independently wealthy and who needs not labor hard, is obligated to provide sexual pleasure every day. If a person is dedicated to Torah and Talmud study, he should cohabit with his wife at least once a week, preferably on Friday night, but should not be with his wife too frequently, behaving as a rooster (Tractate Brachot 22a).

The mitzvah of sexually pleasing one’s wife, plays an important role in normalizing the sexual relationships with pregnant, menopausal or sterile women. Since the Torah (Genesis 38:9) forbids onanism–the wasting of a man’s seed, one may reason that sexual relations with a pregnant, menopausal or sterile woman are off limits. After all, the seed will be wasted in such a relationship. The rabbis, however, conclude that the positive mitzvah of Onah (providing pleasure), pushes aside the negative commandment of not wasting seed, thus allowing for marital relations between a husband and wife, even when the relationship will definitely not result in conception and the seed will clearly go to waste.

Once again, we see the timelessness of Torah, that even the law of the Hebrew maidservant, a law that has not been practiced for centuries and millennia, serves as a critically important source for everyday contemporary Judaism. The precedents of old are indeed vital to the contemporary practice of Judaism, and therefore their study and review is of extreme importance to our own practice of Judaism.

This Shabbat is also Parashat Shekalim. It is one of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim, in which special thematic Torah portions are read. This week’s additional Torah reading is found in Exodus 30:11-16.

May you be blessed.