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Shabbat, shmitta, and slavery: Human freedom and the yoke of heaven

Does the Bible see man as free, as a sovereign and autonomous being? From the very beginning, the answer is less than clear-cut


By Israel Knohl
Does the Bible see man as free, as a sovereign and autonomous being? From the very beginning, the answer is less than clear-cut. In the opening chapter of the Bible, God makes man the master of all worldly creation:  
God said unto them: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth." (Genesis 1:28).
By the second chapter of Genesis, however, the picture of man as omnipotent ruler has already faded. Here we are told that man is created for the purpose of working in the Garden of Eden and protecting it. He may not do as he pleases in the Garden. God forbids him to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and when he disobeys, he is punished by God:
Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life…By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:1,19)
Man, expelled from the Garden of Eden, will have to labor for the rest of his life, with sweat and grief, to extract bread from the earth. Dualism is built into man’s complex existential state: he is conqueror and tyrant, yet also a slave chained to manual labor. Only death, returning him to the very ground from which he extracts his sustenance, can free him from his unremitting toil. Echoing this perspective, the Bible at times represents sheol, the kingdom of death, as providing the freedom that man desires. Job described sheol this way: "There the wicked cease from troubling; and there the weary are at rest….The small and great are there alike; and the servant is free from his master" (Job 3:17-19).
Man’s relationship to God reflects the two poles of human existence. Man was created in God’s image, and it is this singular quality that gives him the ability, and the right, to rule over the rest of creation: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth…" (Genesis 1:26). Yet at the moment that man experiences his mortality in the face of divine eternity, he feels completely worthless, like dry hay and a withered sprout, which "in the morning flourishes, and grows up" and "in the evening is cut down and withers" (Psalms 90:6). Unlike Job, the psalmist does not describe death as freedom, but as a cruel and inevitable end that dwarfs man in contrast to God and nature.
Duality and complexity also characterize the relationship between God and His nation of Israel, which is often described in terms that emphasize the proprietary right of God over Israel. The nation is God’s estate and chattel, obligated to keep the commandments of its master — and yet these divine laws, even as they constrict human behavior, may confer sovereignty and freedom at the same time. The laws of Shabbat, shmitta (the sabbatical year), and slavery – which intertwine in fascinating ways — all illustrate this paradoxical point.
The memory of Egypt
The commandment to rest on Shabbat appears in the Torah in several formulations. First, the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments:  
Six days shall you labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord your God, in it you shall not do any manner of work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your man-servant, nor your maid-servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested on the seventh day; wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it. (Exodus 20: 8-11)  
Shabbat underscores the proximity and affinity between the Creator and man, who is created in God’s image. Just as God worked six days in creating the world and rested on the seventh, so He commands us to cease from our work on Shabbat, the seventh day. Just as God is not enslaved to the world He created, so too the Jew, in resting from his labor on the seventh day, shows that he is also not a slave to his toil. In contrast to the grim picture painted in the Book of Job, the Jew who observes Shabbat does not need to long for death to deliver him from his post-Edenic subjugation to the earth: Shabbat provides rest and liberty from work.
In medieval Spain, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi elegantly conveyed this notion in a poem that is sung as one of the Shabbat table hymns, or zemirot. The Sabbath must not be forgotten – Yom Shabaton ein lishkoach – for on this day (and here the poet quotes exactly the words of Job), yanukhu yegi’ei koach, “the weary are at rest.”
And yet the commandment of Shabbat sets a limit to man’s sovereignty over all other creatures. For six days of the week, man may rule over the beasts and animals, but on Shabbat the beast is released from service, and also granted the right to a day off. This is the spirit of Exodus 23:12: "Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your ass may have rest, and the son of your handmaid, and the stranger, may be refreshed."
This text tells us that the purpose of the Shabbat commandment is to grant relief and relaxation to all those compelled to work during the rest of the week: the ox, the donkey, the slave and the stranger. To be a slave in the ancient world was to be completely and continuously subjugated to the master’s business. Shabbat, which each week releases the slave from his master’s rule, is thus a hedge that constrains the whole institution of slavery. This linkage of Shabbat to the memory of Egypt is made explicit in the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy:  
But the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord your God, in it you shall not do any manner of work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your man-servant, nor your maid-servant, nor your ox, nor your ass, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates; that your man-servant and your maid-servant may rest as well as you. And you shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out form there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5: 13-15)  
Thus Shabbat doubly embodies the memory of the Exodus: The Jew that ceases to work demonstrates in so doing that he is redeemed from Egypt’s slavery. In granting a respite to his slave and beast, he passes on to them the gift of freedom and liberty that all Jews derive from the Exodus from Egypt.
Shabbat of the land
The shmitta commandment is closely related to that of Shabbat. Just as Shabbat follows six workdays, shmitta follows six years of farming. And as Shabbat releases the beast from the tyranny of man, the shmitta year releases the land from man’s conquest and creates equality among man, slave and beast, partners in enjoying the fruits of the seventh year. Shmitta, accordingly, is known as “Shabbat of the land”: 
When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Sabbath unto the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in the produce thereof. But in the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath unto the Lord . . . And the Sabbath-produce of the land shall be for food for you: for you, and for your servant and for your maid, and for your hired servant and for the settler by your side that sojourn with you; and for your cattle, and for the beasts that are in your land, shall all the increase thereof be for food.  (Leviticus 25: 2-7)
It would seem that shmitta decreases man’s sovereignty by limiting his right of ownership over the land, whose free-growing produce, untended during that year, is available for anyone to take and eat. But in fact, those who observe this commandment discover that their greater freedom lies in the release from their continuous enslavement to agricultural work. Shmitta observance demands courage, and a willingness to renounce material property. Observing this commandment was particularly challenging when the Land of Israel was subject to foreign rule, which demanded land taxes also during the shmitta year. Rabbi Isaac, who lived in Roman Palestine in the late 3rd century CE, described the courage of those Jews who observed shmitta in his day with a quotation from Psalms 3:20:  
"The mighty in strength that fulfill His word." Of whom does scripture speak? R. Isaac said: Of such as observe the sabbatical year. We often find that a man fulfills a precept for one day, for one week, for one month, but does he perhaps do so for the rest of the days of the year? Now this man sees his field untilled, his vineyard untilled and yet he pays his taxes and does not complain – have you a mightier man than this? (Leviticus Rabbah 1:1)
The seven-year cycle is not unique to shmitta; a similar cycle is found in the laws of the slave in Exodus and Deuteronomy. "If you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go free without payment" (Exodus 21:2). "If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto you, he shall serve you six years; and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you" (Deuteronomy 15:12).
Indeed some rabbis argued that the seventh year mentioned in these verses is actually the shmitta year. Declared Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor, who lived in 12th-century France: "And in the seventh year – when one does not harvest, plant, reap or gather grapes, one does not need slave labor as much." Since, in the shmitta year, there is no real financial need for the slave, the Torah commanded that he be freed.
Of course, continuing this line of thought, one could further claim that in the year following the shmitta year, when the master again needs the slave’s labor, he would be allowed to re-enslave him or her. The text may have been interpreted this way in 6th century BCE Judea, as we read (in Jeremiah 34) that King Zedekiah ordered that all Hebrew slaves be freed by their owners, but that "afterwards they turned, and caused the servants and the handmaids, whom they had let go free, to return, and brought them into subjection . . .” But surely this was not the Bible’s original intention. The slave is set free – permanently — in the seventh year of his slavery, whether it falls in the shmitta year or not. The connection between the law of shmitta and the law of the slave is purely by analogy: just as the Torah limits man’s ownership of the land, so too it circumscribes the extent of one person’s enslavement to another.
Slaves of God
In the same way that Deuteronomy linked the law of Shabbat to the Exodus, it forges a linkage between freeing the slave and the memory of the Exodus: "And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing today." (Deuteronomy 15:15) The Jew who has been redeemed from Egyptian slavery needs to empathize with the slave, and to help him enter his new life as a free human being.
Both Exodus and Deuteronomy recognize the slave’s independent right to refuse freedom. The slave who loves his master’s home so much that he doesn’t desire liberty is free to make this choice. He is pierced through the ear with an awl and symbolically affixed to the door of his master’s home, thus becoming an eternal slave (Exodus 21:5-6; Deuteronomy 15:16-17).
The Book of Leviticus, however, takes a radically different position on the issue of slavery. In Chapter 25, we find the unique assertion that the Hebrew slave is not to be freed in the seventh year, but rather in fiftieth, the Jubilee year (yovel in Hebrew) that completes the cycle of seven shmittta years. Leviticus explains the reason for the dismissal of the slave in these words: "For they are My servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as bondmen" (Leviticus 25:42).
This text sees the deliverance from Egypt not as a passage from slavery to freedom, but as an exchange of masters! The Jews were enslaved to Pharaoh, and God liberated them from Pharoah’s yoke and made them His own property. They were slaves, and slaves they remain – but not the slaves of their fellow man. The laws in Exodus and Deuteronomy view the Jew sold to his neighbor as a slave in every respect. Leviticus rejects the notion that a Jew can be enslaved to his neighbor, for all are slaves of God alone. Or, as Rabbi Yehuda Halevi put it in his poem "Slaves of Time," only the slave of God is really free.
This revolutionary idea has practical implications. According to Leviticus, the Israelite who works for his neighbor is not considered a slave, but is rather a hired hand: "As a hired servant, and as a settler, he shall be with you." His master is therefore forbidden to tyrannize him and to submit him to hard labor: "You shall not rule over him with rigor; but shall fear your God" (Leviticus 25:40, 43). Thus Leviticus doesn’t even raise the possibility of piercing the slave for eternal slavery, as enabled by Exodus and Deuteronomy. God’s slave cannot be an eternal slave to flesh and blood; it is only to God that he is forever enslaved.
The approach of Leviticus influenced the attitude to slavery in the post-biblical period. In Exodus and Deuteronomy, the slave who rejects liberty and prefers to be marked as an eternal slave is not belittled for doing so. But Talmudic sages who were impressed by the total negation of slavery in Leviticus interpreted the piercing as a sign of infamy. In the Tosefta to Babba Kama, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai clarifies the reason for the piercing:   
And it says, "His master will pierce his ear with an awl" (Exodus 21:6). On what account is the ear among all the limbs designated to be pierced? Because it heard from Mount Sinai, "For unto me are the Children of Israel slaves, they are my slaves" (Lev 25:55). Yet the ear broke off itself the yoke of Heaven and took upon itself the yoke of mortal man. Therefore Scripture says: Let the ear come and be pierced, for it has not what it heard.  
In Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai’s opinion, the piercing is a punishment for the slave who exchanges his enslavement to God for enslavement to flesh and blood. This change in status is underscored by the slave’s exemption from the obligation to say the Shema prayer. The Mishnah, which describes the Shema prayer as the acceptance of the yoke of heaven, exempts the slave from this obligation (Mishna Brachot 2:2, 3:3).
The Palestinian Talmud explains as follows:  
"Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is One" [Deut 6:4]. Whoever has no master except God [is obligated to recite the Shema]. The slave is excluded, because he has another master. Only a person who is free can take upon himself the rule and majesty of the Holy One Blessed be He.  
The paradox of true freedom
Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai lived in the first century CE, at the time of the great rebellion against the Romans. In that period, there were those who viewed in a political light the contrast between the yoke of heaven and enslavement to a human master. The Judeo-Roman historian Josephus tells us that Jewish revolutionaries of his day believed that paying taxes to the Roman emperor contradicted the religious obligation to accept of the yoke of heaven.
To a certain extent, the Bible provides a basis for such a view. In the Book of Judges, the warrior Gideon refuses the people’s request that he establish a ruling dynasty: "I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you." (Judges 8:23). This strain is also heard in God’s words to the prophet Samuel, who is dismayed when the elders of Israel ask him to appoint a king: "Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not be king over them"
(I Samuel 8:7).
Overall, however, the Jews of antiquity opted against this viewpoint. Monarchy was established, and Jewish lawmakers decreed that no contradiction existed between the rule of God and the rule of the king. The problem was solved by viewing the king as God’s messiah, and identifying, as in the case of Solomon, the throne of the king with the throne of God: "Then Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord" (I Chronicles 29:23). While this solution grants power to the kings of Israel sitting on God’s throne, it does not legitimate the kings of the nations of the world. Thus, Josephus reports, Judah the Galilean "incited his countrymen to revolt, upbraiding them as cowards for consenting to pay tribute to the Romans and tolerating mortal masters, after having God for their Lord" (II 118).
A different track was taken by a contemporary of Judah the Galilean – Jesus of Nazareth. According to the Gospels, Jesus was asked whether it is permitted to pay tax to the Caesar. Jesus pointed to the portrait of Roman emperor engraved on the coins and famously replied: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s." (Mathew 22:21, Mark 12:17, Luke 20:25). Built into his answer is a clear distinction between the religious obligations toward God and the political obligations toward Caesar. According to Jesus, paying the tax to the emperor does not contradict the loyalty to God.
The sages of Israel in the late Temple period and after its destruction were also divided regarding the attitude to the Roman rule. It is true that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai emphasized the contradiction between serving God and enslavement to man, but he did not project this into the political realm. His words about the slave’s "ear that heard" were restricted to the status of the individual. In the national sphere, he actually believed in moderation and in the acceptance of foreign rule. A similar stance was taken by the Mishanic sage Rabbi Yose ben Kisma, who lived during the time of the disastrous Bar Kochba rebellion. He maintained that the Romans should not be provoked because "heaven has ordained that this nation will reign" (BT Avodah Zara 18a).
On the other hand, there were some sages whose yearning for freedom and expectation of messianic redemption impelled them to aid the rebellion against the Romans. The great Mishnaic sage Rabbi Akiva supported Bar Kochba, calling him "a star out of Jacob" (Numbers 24:7). After the rebellion failed, the Romans prohibited Torah study and the observance of commandments. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Brachot 61b), Rabbi Akiva continued to teach Torah despite the Roman decrees. The Romans caught him and sentenced him to a cruel death. This is the scene reported in the Talmud:
The time of Rabbi Akiva’s execution was the time of the Shema Yisrael prayer. As the executioners flayed his skin with iron combs, Rabbi Akiva recited the Shema. His students asked of him, "Our master! Even to this extent?" He answered: "All my life I have been troubled by this verse, "You shall love God . . . with all your soul." The sages take "all your soul" to mean: even if they take your life. I have always wondered: will I ever have the privilege of fulfilling this mitzvah? And now that the opportunity has finally arrived – shall I not seize it?" Then he extended the final word echad ("One") until his life expired with that word.
Rabbi Akiva was sentenced to death and his body was given to his torturers. His status, it would seem, is lower than that of the slave who cannot accept the yoke of heaven because of his enslavement. Yet Rabbi Akiva here expresses a supreme level of internal freedom, at the very moment that he experiences the most extreme loss of external freedom. He overcomes the torment of the body and accepts the yoke of heaven. By this act, Rabbi Akiva gives a whole new dimension to the notion of freedom, as spiritual content completely independent of external circumstance. Rabbi Akiva was thus a model of the truly free man, both for his generation and for the many generations to follow.

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