Mishpatim: The Freedom Imperative

Written by Rabbi Yitzhak Grossman on . Posted in Torah

In Parashas Mishpatim, the Torah declares that if a Hebrew servant declines to leave his life of servitude at the end of his term, “his master shall bore his ear through with an awl” (Shemos 21:5-6). Rashi explains that the ear is singled out for the performance of this ritual to underscore that the servant has forgotten what he has heard at Mt. Sinai–– one who sells himself as a servant (and then voluntarily extends his servitude) has forgotten Hashem’s asseveration that Jews are free, and servants to no one but Him: “For unto Me the children of Israel are servants; they are My servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: I am Hashem your G-d” (Vayikra 25:55).

Hashem’s declaration that Jews are “‘My servants–– and not servants to servants” has various applications throughout the halachah of employment.


The Talmud declares that “an employee may quit in the middle of the day” (Bava Metzia 10a). While the precise scope and details of this right are complex, it is clear that it grants an employee (as opposed to a contract worker) special privileges with regard to reneging on an employment contract.

Rabbeinu Tam rules that an insolvent debtor, or a husband unable to maintain his wife, cannot be compelled to accept employment in order to satisfy his obligations. One basis for this position is the principle that Jews are not, and cannot be compelled to become, “servants to servants” (see Tosafos Kesubos 63a s.v. Be’Omerand Shut. Ha’Rosh 78:2). [Rabbeinu Eliyahu, however, disagrees with R. Tam.]

Finally, authorities maintain that it is prohibited to enter into an employment commitment of too long a term (opinions differ over the maximum permitted length - see Shulchan Aruch CM 333:3; Levush; Sema; Taz; Shach; Shut. Chasam Sofer OC #206). This prohibition is limited to an employee who rooms and boards with his employer (Pischei Choshen Sechirus 7:1 and n. 3), or one for whom these expenses are paid by his employer and who is required to reside in the vicinity of his employer (Shut. Chasam Sofer CMend of#172). Others reject this entire restriction (see Shachibid.).

Rabbi Yitzhak Grossman has studied in various yeshivos in the US and Israel, and currently serves as Senior Lecturer and Director of Studies for the Greater Washington Community Kollel. His areas of specialization are Choshen Mishpat and Even Haezer (Jewish civil and family law), and he has served as a dayan (rabbinic judge) with various organizations, including the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington.