Mishpatim by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Mishpatim: The Tale of the Indentured Servant

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Now these are the Mishpatim, Ordinances, which you shall set before them. When you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve you for six years only. In the seventh year, he shall go free. If he came in a bachelor, a bachelor he shall depart. However, if his master should offer him a female slave to marry, he shall take her with him when he departs. If she bear him sons and daughters, then the wife and children will remain with the master, and the slave must depart alone.

–Exodus 21: 1-4 (translation mine)

My name is Mashkeh ben Shoteh, and I am originally from the Tribe of Gad—at least, that’s what Gran’therZaken used to tell us. I don’t believe he was certain; he was usually deep into his cups when he started bragging about our ancestry—though I doubt there was much, if anything, to brag about. What do I do for a living, you ask me, Stranger? Well—I’m not proud of this, but it’s more what is done to me, than what I choose to do, if you catch my meaning. You see, I’m a Hebrew slave—you may call me an “indentured servant,” if you like, but it’s all the same.

My master? He’s like—like most masters, I suppose, unreasoning and imperious: “Do this! Do that! Ha, Mashkeh, you numbskull, jump when I order you to do this! Ah, what’s the use? You’re a fool and a dolt; you’ll be a slave all of your life!”

Which isn’t really true. I consulted with Navon ben Sefer, our local Wise Man, and he assured me that I will remain with Master for six years only—and that time-period is soon to end, thank the Creator. That is unlike the Canaanite Slaves, who remain so for life. Not fair, I believe, and have said so to Pi-Baal, my fellow slave and a Canaanite; he only shrugs his shoulders, and says nothing.

“Master is a fool,” he whispers, “and I will escape when it pleases me.”

The entire Slave-System is corrupt, I tell you. I used to be a wine-drinker—oh, I was terrible, I can tell you, and was thrown out of many a tavern. I had a small inheritance from Gran’ther, but wasted it all on my bad habits. And there were always loose women who were happy to help me spend and drink, spend and drink—well, soon enough I was hung over with a roaring headache, and bankrupt as a shrine-mouse. Finally, the courts stepped in, and ordered me sold into slavery to teach me a lesson, learn to sober up, and to repay all those taverns to which I owed money. Thank the Invisible One, that is all behind me, now.

I have left those loose women far behind me; indeed, I have been known to mutter a prayer to the Holy One, from time to time. And Master was kind enough (I thought) to introduce me to another slave he owned, a plain-looking wench named Yaffa. I was, at first, not attracted to her, despite Master’s pleadings and imprecations. Finally, though, I looked at her one day when she was unaware, and saw how her face lit up when she smiled—well, that convinced me, then and there. We were married that week. God blessed our union, and Yaffa bore me two boys and a girl.

Now, however, my time of freedom is approaching, and I was making plans to leave Master’s cold heart and stale bread crusts. That was before I met Navon one evening, while on an errand to the dairy for a pitcher of milk—Master likes it warm, in the morning; he says that it aids his digestion.

“Good evening to you, Mashkeh,” smiled Navon.

“A very good evening indeed,” I answered. Navon and I were friends; it never occurred to him to treat me like a slave. He was, indeed, a very wise, holy, and gentle man.

Cheerfully, I told him, “You know, of course, Master Navon, that I will be leaving this town, very soon, with my promised freedom.”

Navon’s face darkened. “Did your Master not tell you of the Law?” he asked. I shook my head; Master loved to keep me in the dark about everything. Navon then went on to explain that, although I myself could leave Master’s ownership when my term was up, my beloved Yaffa and my dear little ones had to remain with him.

What could I do? I burst into tears. Navon, bless him, hugged me, and whispered, “There is an escape clause.” It seemed that if I agreed to remain with Master—not exactly a fate worse than death, but hardly agreeable—I could stay with Yaffa and my family.

“There is one small thing you must do,” said Navon, and explained to me about standing by a doorpost—he called it a mezuzah—and having Master drill a hole in the lobe of my ear. I was not thrilled about that part, but was willing to do anything, not to lose my family.

“What foolishness!” laughed Pi-Baal, when I told him. It had something to do with the Theophany at Sinai—when God said, “Be slaves to me, and not to one another,” I apparently did not pay heed. The deaf ear which I turned to God’s instructions must be pierced. This is my punishment—though I do get to stay with my wife and children in the end.

And I believe Pi-Baal to be jealous of our laws, though I saw him putting his meagre belongings into a leathern bag—is he planning on escaping tonight?

You ask, what are my feelings about this entire ear lobe thing, Stranger? Well, I truly wish that I could take my wife and kids and leave in broad daylight—but no one consulted me when they composed the Torah Laws of Slavery. What can I do?

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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