Why does Parshas Mishpatim begin with the laws of an עֶבֶד עִבְרִי – a Hebrew servant? What is the significance of this topic that marks it out as the first of the laws after receiving the Torah?
The Gemara in Bava Metzia 10a introduces a key concept to Jewish law; that a hired worker can stop in the middle of the job for whatever reason he chooses, so long as he compensates the lost labour, ensures a replacement etc. He cannot be made to work. This is in contrast to an עֶבֶד who is a slave, and is bound to his work.
The psukim say: כִּי תִקְנֶה עֶבֶד עִבְרִי שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים יַעֲבֹד וּבַשְּׁבִעִת יֵצֵא לַחָפְשִׁי חִנָּם - Should you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall work [for] six years, and in the seventh [year], he shall go out to freedom without charge. (21:2)
וְאִם אָמֹר יֹאמַר הָעֶבֶד אָהַבְתִּי אֶת אֲדֹנִי אֶת אִשְׁתִּי וְאֶת בָּנָי לֹא אֵצֵא חָפְשִׁי – But if the slave says, “I love my master, my wife, and my children. I will not go free,” (2:5)
וְהִגִּישׁוֹ אֲדֹנָיו אֶל הָאֱ־לֹהִים וְהִגִּישׁוֹ אֶל הַדֶּלֶת אוֹ אֶל הַמְּזוּזָה וְרָצַע אֲדֹנָיו אֶת אָזְנוֹ בַּמַּרְצֵעַ וַעֲבָדוֹ לְעֹלָם – his master shall bring him to the judges, and he shall bring him to the door or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him forever. (2:6)
There is a basic rule in the Gemara that the term “עֶבֶד” alone demarks a Canaanite, a slave, which is a permanent service, whereas an עֶבֶד עִבְרִי is a temporary status, which is why it must be specified. My rebbi pointed out to me that when he begins his service (21:2), he is an עֶבֶד עִבְרִי whereas after the allotted time has passed at which he is meant to go free, should he remain to say, he has become an עֶבֶד – a slave, with no עִבְרִי – the Jew has become a Canaanite slave. Although this is not halachically accurate, this is certainly hashkafically accurate.
But what has he done that is so reprehensible, that he is pierced, a form of branding of property? Read Full Dvar Torah →