Rules for avoiding servitude in the ‘company store’

Rabbi Josef Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.


As a child, I used to watch the Tennessee Ernie Ford show on television every week. I loved his deep, resonant, baritone voice, and the songs that he sang were about everyday people and situations. One of my favorite songs of his was “Sixteen Tons.” The chorus is:

“Sixteen tons, and what do you get?/ Another day older and deeper in debt!/ St. Peter don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go;/ I owe my soul to the company store.”

I had no clue at that tender age what a company store was or who St. Peter was, but I loved to go around the house singing these lyrics in my deepest voice. Only later in life did I understand the plight of the worker of whom Tennessee Ernie sang, and it was not until I was in my twenties that I actually saw for myself a company town complete with a company store.

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, the first piece of legislation addressed is the treatment of the Eved Ivri, most often translated as the Hebrew slave. To many of us, the notion of maintaining a cadre of slaves is abhorrent, especially given the experiences of the Israelites in Egypt and of the enslavement of Africans in this country for the first centuries of its history. The Torah, on the other hand, seems to remain nonjudgmental and seeks, rather, to humanize the institution before eliminating it. 


For many, however, even translating the word “Eved” as “slave” is problematic, as the Hebrew word can also mean “servant.” In that case, the Torah is prescribing the treatment of someone who is an indentured servant, similar in many ways to the worker about whom Tennessee Ernie sang. The Eved Ivri, then, was a person who was or whose family was in such dire financial straits that the only viable means of support was to sell that person’s service to a wealthier individual. 

Whether the Eved Ivri is a slave or an indentured servant, the Torah prescribes the proper treatment and term of service for that individual. In order to prevent anyone from becoming indebted to the extent that the worker in “Sixteen Tons” was, an Eved Ivri’s term of service could not exceed six years. At the end of that term, the Eved Ivri was to be set free and given some compensation that might prevent him/her from repeating the servitude. People who had been enslaved by a Pharaoh were not to serve other human being in perpetuity; rather, they were ultimately to be servants of God. 

The setting of this and all of the civil, religious and moral legislation in this Parashah is Mount Sinai. On the same mountain from which the Ten Utterances were pronounced, the rest of the Torah was presented to the people. This instruction (the root meaning of Torah) was not devised by a human being or a committee of human beings; rather, the authority for it is much higher. 

The manner in which slaves/servants, in which women, in which the most vulnerable members of a society, widows, orphans and strangers, and even in which livestock were to be treated was a divine obligation. 

As the portion concludes, the people affirm this as they proclaim, “All that God has spoken, we will faithfully do!” That Covenant, which would have us view each human being as created in the Divine Image, holds as ideal the prevention of the futility and hopelessness of “Sixteen Tons.” It mandates a society in which each member has the opportunity to secure a meaningful, prosperous and free life. 

Shabbat Shalom!