Who Is the Eved Ivri?
The Hebrew Slave
The Covenant Collection (CC), as the collection of laws in Parashat Mishpatim is commonly called, opens with laws regulating the institution of Hebrew slavery:
שמות כא:ב כִּי תִקְנֶה עֶבֶד עִבְרִי שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים יַעֲבֹד וּבַשְּׁבִעִת יֵצֵא לַחָפְשִׁי חִנָּם:
Exod 20:2 When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment.
Why is the man, presumably an Israelite, being sold? Is he being sold into slavery or is he an existing slave, being purchased by an Israelite from non-Israelite masters?
The Rabbinic Approach: A Thief Sold into Slavery
The Rabbis identify the ivri (Hebrew) in Exodus and (the slightly variant laws) in Deuteronomy (15:12-18) slave as an Israelite free man who has been sold by the courts to make restitution for theft. This interpretation is based on the need to harmonize these laws of the Hebrew slave with those in Leviticus 25:39-55, which describe the process of debt servitude of one’s fellow, and declares that he must be freed at the jubilee year. The Mechilta deRabbi Yishmael (“Nezikin” 1) explains:
או אינו מדבר אלא במוכר עצמו, כשהוא אומר וכי ימוך אחיך עמך ונמכר לך, הרי מוכר עצמו אמור,
Perhaps [the verse Exod 20:2] is actually speaking about someone who sold himself [due to debt]? [The Torah] says (Lev 25:39): “If your kinsman among you falls into straights and is sold to you” – this is speaking about someone who sells himself.
הא מה תלמוד לומר כי תקנה עבד עברי, בנמכר בבית דין על גניבתו הכתוב מדבר, שיהא עובדו ועובד את הבן.
Thus, what does “when you acquire a Hebrew slave” come to teach you? Scripture here deals with one sold into servitude by the court for stealing. Such a one must serve the one who bought him and his son [after him].
The rabbis assume that two contradictory laws of Israelite servitude must be about two different types of servitude, one for debt (Leviticus) and the other for theft (Exodus and Deuteronomy). Nevertheless, the plain sense of the text in Exodus does not support this reading for a number of reasons.
Was the Hebrew Sold into Slavery for Theft?
In offering their interpretation, the Rabbis make two assumptions: that ivri is synonymous with Israelite, and that the man in Exodus was sold to repay stolen items. Each of these assumptions is problematic, but we will start with the second.
Rhetorical/Semantic Argument: Law is from the Buyer’s Perspective
ק.נ.ה (acquire/buy) and מ.כ.ר (sell) equally represent a commercial transaction. The use of either depends mostly on who initiates the transaction, the buyer or the seller, and who is most eager to alter the terms of exchange—in investment jargon, who “crosses the buy/sell spread.” The statement “when you acquire (ק.נ.ה) an ivri slave” indicates that the initiative lies on the part of the buyer and belies the forced selling of a court, which is described as a “sale,” using the verb (מ.כ.ר)“to sell.” 
Logical Argument: Why Six Years?
If the eved ivri is a freeman sold to make restitution for his theft, why is the term of his servitude fixed at six years? Should he not serve an amount of time sufficient to pay off his liabilities, whether it be one year, ten years, or more? This too militates against the eved ivri being a theft-slave.
Literary Argument: Theft Slavery Appears Elsewhere in the CC
The sale of a freeman to make restitution for theft that he is unable to repay is prescribed elsewhere in the CC (Exodus 22:2):
…אִם אֵין לוֹ וְנִמְכַּר בִּגְנֵבָתוֹ.
…if he lacks the means he shall be sold for his theft.
Literary or drafting logic would dictate that the eved ivri stipulations follow rather than precede this point of law. That they do not do so suggests that the eved ivri is a different sort of slave, a slave who was not sold to make monetary restitution but, rather, an existing slave.
Comparative Problem: Hammurabi’s Law
The Covenant Collection is often assumed to be based on some form of Hammurabi’s Laws; for this reason, the latter are often helpful for understanding the former. Law 117 of Hammurabi’s Laws is about debt-bondage:
If a man is gripped in poverty, and has sold his wife, or his son, or his daughter for silver, or has put them into bound-service, they shall work in the house of their purchaser or of their bond-master for three years but in the fourth year their liberation shall be agreed (Richardson trans.).
Despite the differences in time limit and most importantly in who is sold—in the Covenant Collection, the man sells himself, in Hammurabi, his wife and/or children—the reason for the sale is poverty, not theft.
For all of the above reasons, the eved ivri should not be understood as a theft-slave according to the peshat.
The Slave Was already a Slave: The Proleptic Problem
Not only can the eved ivri not be a theft slave, but he cannot be a classic debt slave either, such as we find in Hammurabi or Leviticus, since, grammatically speaking, the verse is referring to the purchase of a slave, not the purchase of a freeman. To explain, it is a truism that a person who sells himself (or is sold by a court) is a freeman, not a slave, and only becomes a slave after he is sold.
The proleptic or anticipatory use of the term eved in the phrase “if you acquire an ivri slave” (כי תקנה עבד עברי) implies that, at the time of his being acquired, he was already a slave. Otherwise, why not simply state “if you acquire an ivri…” as the parallel passage in Deuteronomy in fact reads? Thus, the ivri slave of Exodus 21:2 must refer to an existing slave purchased by another master, and not to a freeman being sold for the first time into bondage due to theft or debt. This explains the eved part, but what is an ivri?
The Unique Use of Ivri in the Slave Law
Other than in a similar piece of legislation in Deuteronomy 15:12-17 that also deals with the Hebrew slave, the designation ivri never appears again in the legal corpora of the Pentateuch in any context. In all other laws, the Torah uses either “Israelite,” your brother (אחיך), your fellow (רעך), or simply the plain designation ish (man) or isha (woman), with the understanding that the law was addressing and/or referring to an Israelite. So what might ivri mean here?
Interpretation 1: A Synonym for Israelite
Most modern scholars agree with the rabbinic position that ivri is an ethnic term designating an Israelite, but do not explain why this law makes use of this unusual designation. Surely, if it just means to say “an Israelite slave,” let it say so.
Interpretation 2: A Designation for Non-Israelite Relatives of Israel
Abraham ibn Ezra, in his long commentary to Exodus 21:2, cites unnamed (Karaite?) scholars who assert that ivri means a non-Israelite kinsman. These exegetes offer two possibilities. The first is that ivri came to designate the non-Israelite descendants of Eber, a great grandson of Shem (Gen. 10:21-24), including Eber’s 13 children and their descendants. The second is that it came to designate non-Israelite descendants of Abraham, who was called “the ivri” on account of having been taken by the Lord from “beyond the Euphrates” (me-ever ha-nahar, as in Josh. 24:3), i.e., the one “from beyond,” or “the other side.” Thus, ivri is a catch-all designation for all non-Israelite descendants of Abraham, including Ishmaelites, Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites.
Their effort to identify ivri as exclusively non-Israelite was driven by three observations:
- The children of the slave were said to belong to the mother (v. 4), in contrast to Israelite law, where lineage follows the father;
- The ivri slave serves forever (v. 6), not just until the Jubilee year (as per Leviticus 25:39);
- He is made to undergo an un-brotherly and humiliating procedure of having his ear bored.
Reading ivri purely as “non-Israelite,” however, is problematic. Ivri may not be a synonym for “Israelite”, but it is used in the Bible to include Israelites. In addition, why does the text here offer the special dispensation to these ivri slaves in particular? If this legislation was meant to express an early but splendid outbreak of humanism, why not Egyptian or Aramean slaves as well?
Thus, neither “Israelite” nor “Non-Israelite” seems to be sufficient explanation of the meaning of ivri.
The Ivri as a Social Class in Israelite Society
As I argue in my essay, “Who Were the Hebrews?,” the term ivri in the Bible has different meanings depending on what period is under discussion. When describing the patriarchs or the period of Egyptian bondage, ivri seems to be a broad term for “foreigners” or “outsiders,” with Israel’s family being merely one of many subgroups of ivrim. The term appears cognate with the Akkadian Ḥabiru/Apiru, referring to a people of lower economic and social standing who dwelt in the Levant in the 2nd millennium B.C.E, making their living as serfs, brigands, half-citizens, and mercenaries.
In the book of Samuel, however, when describing the groups dominated by the Philistines and who joined with Saul to overthrow them, ivri and Israelite appear to be two socially distinct but ethnically related groups of people. Ivrim, in that context, represents a low-standing socio-economic group who were part of the Israelites and many of whom were likely Israelites, but whose desperate economic plight caused them to live among the Philistines as war slaves or serfs. This latter use of ivri is, in my view, what stands being the law of the eved ivri.
The law of the eved ivri is a special piece of legislation codified to deal with the acquisition of ethnically related individuals, who have previously sold themselves to foreigners for economic security or have been forcibly enslaved. Despite their low social standing and/or their cultural estrangement, these individuals remain part of the Israelite nation. The law seeks to dispense special compassion towards them. The maximum six-year term allows them the possibility of rejoining Israelite society as equals, while their right to stay provides them with continuing economic security.
An Addition to the Covenant Collection
Further evidence for the law of the Hebrew slave being sui generis, i.e., not related integrally to other laws in the Covenant Collection, is that the word ivri is unique to this law and appears nowhere else in the CC or any other legal corpora other than as the ivri slave.Indeed, the question of why the Covenant Collection begins with this law has long bothered commentators, traditional and modern. Nahum Sarna’s perceptive comment in his JPS Torah edition to that section that “none of the other law collections from the ancient Near East opens with this topic” leaves us grasping for some literary explanation.
For traditional commentators, the strange choice was defended by noting that God had just taken Israel out of bondage, so it would only be right for them to free their (future?) slaves from permanent bondage. In fact, the rabbis even suggest that the requirement to free a Hebrew slave was given before Sinai, while the Israelites were still slaves in Egypt (j. Rosh Hashanah, 3:5).
…א”ר שמואל בר רב יצחק [שמות ו יג] וידבר ה’ אל משה ואל אהרן ויצום אל בני ישראל על מה ציום על פרשת שילוח עבדים.
R. Shmuel son of R. Yitzchak says: “[The verse states] ‘So the Lord spoke to both Moses and Aaron in regard to the Israelites instructing them and so on’ (Exodus 6:13). About what did he instruct them? [He instructed them] about sending away their slaves.”
Nevertheless, the simplest explanation for this exceptional locution is that this law is not originally part of the Covenant Collection, but placed at its beginning secondarily. In other words, the placement of this law at the beginning is a redactional strategy to avoid cutting into the collection as it was received, but the collection itself never began with this law. In fact, once we remove the Hebrew slave law from the CC as an artificial graft, we see that the CC’s internal, Israelite, laws contemplated only one type of Israelite slave, that of theft-slavery (Exodus 22:2, quoted above).
Second Person vs. Third Person
This explanation can be supported by a further linguistic observation. Scholars have noted that the protasis of the opening statement (“If you acquire an eved ivri…”) makes use of the second person, in contrast to standard casuistic formulations typical of Near Eastern law codes, which use the third person “if a man acquires,” and more importantly, in contrast to the rest of the formulations contained in the self-same CC. Realizing that the law of the Hebrew slave was an independent law tacked onto the CC explains this formulaic disparity; as is typical in the conservative redaction style of ancient Israelite literature, the law was preserved in its original formulation.
Reinterpreting the Ivri Slave in Deuteronomy: A Semantic Shift
This analysis is only applicable to the Hebrew slave law as it appears in Exodus. Deuteronomy 15:12-18, however, a grosso modo repetition of Exodus 21:2-6, leaves no room for ivri as anything other than Israelite:
דברים טו:יב כִּי יִמָּכֵר לְךָ אָחִיךָ הָעִבְרִי אוֹ הָעִבְרִיָּה…
Deut 15:12 If a fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you…
This opening differs from that of Exodus in at least three important respects:
- The term eved, as the person who is acquired, does not appear here.
- Reflecting the fact that the term ivri had fallen into disuse (likely because of its the lowly social connotation), the term ivri is glossed as “your brother.” This gloss makes it clear that Deuteronomy is speaking specifically about an Israelite.
- The verb “buy” (ק.נ.ה) has been replaced with the word “sell” (מ.כ.ר).
Deuteronomy’s Biblical Exegesis
In what modern scholars have come to call inner biblical exegesis, Deuteronomy has reinterpreted the original slave legislation and applied it to protect an Israelite free man or free woman who sells himself or is sold by a court, a purely intra-national affair. This could go a long way to explain the extra generosity that is bestowed on the Israelite slaves when they are set free in the seventh year: they are to be furnished with “flock, threshing floor and vat” (Deut 15:14). Other differences also reflect more generosity than Exod. 21:2. Deuteronomy, thus, retains the term Hebrew slave, but repurposes it to mean “Israelite sold to a fellow Israelite,” likely, as the rabbis suggested, because of theft.
In Sum: The Development of the Ivri Slave Law
The law of the eved ivri was a piece of (independent) legislation promulgated when disenfranchised Israelites (ivrim), who were owned by non-Israelites, were being bought by their Israelite brethren. It extended protection against permanent enslavement to an underprivileged group ethnically affiliated with and overlapping with the Israelites but not coterminous with them.
Later, this law became part of the Covenant Collection, possibly because of its association with other slave stipulations appearing within it, such as that of selling a thief into bondage (Exod. 22:2) and the laws of what happens if a master kills or injures his slave (Exod. 21:20-21, 27). As the meaning of ivri shifted over time, it was reinterpreted in Deuteronomy as a law about Israelite slaves alone.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
February 22, 2017
May 20, 2020
Dr. Albert D. Friedberg holds a Ph.D. from the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilization of the University of Toronto and attended Ner Israel Rabbinical College. He is the author of, Crafting the 613 Commandments: Maimonides on the Enumeration, Classification and Formulation of the Scriptural Commandments. He currently runs an investment firm in Toronto.
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series