In anticipation and following last week’s parsha, a number of people remarked to me how the Torah puts tremendous trust in people, even in rather questionable situations. Two examples were particularly mentioned, first of all, the trust put in the hands of the master who has purchased a Hebrew maidservant and has decided to either marry her himself, or marry her off to his son. Either way, the Torah remarks:
אִם־אַחֶ֖רֶת יִֽקַּֽח־לֹ֑ו שְׁאֵרָ֛הּ כְּסוּתָ֥הּ וְעֹנָתָ֖הּ לֹ֥א יִגְרָֽע׃
If he take him another wife, her food, her raiment, and her conjugal rights, shall he not diminish. (Shemot 21)
Even though not all three things due to her are equally private, they are all part of the private relationship between a husband and wife. How is she to prove that she is mistreated? How is she to avoid being mistreated? It seems that the Torah put its trust in the slave owner.
Likewise, a little further on, we learn about someone who has enticed a young virgin, convinced her to engage in sexual relations with him despite not being betrothed and married to each other. The girl in question is less than half a year into puberty, as is indicated in the parallel passage in Devarim, where it clearly speaks of a נערה, i.e., a young lady who is just hitting puberty, a young teenager. As any expert will tell you, even when a girl is enticed to engage in sexual relations, she may not necessarily do so voluntarily, but rather because she feels too powerless to resist. The girl in question was enticed and perhaps fooled by her enticer, and she may have been compelled to participate against her better judgment. Yet, the Torah trusts him to be a good husband, and indeed forces him to accept that responsibility, provided the girls father agrees to marry his daughter off to the enticer. How does the Torah consider this man trustworthy?
A third example of the same is found in the Haftara of parshat Sheqalim, which we read this last week, too. King Yehoash promoted regular repairs of the Beit haMiqdash, a task he delegated to the Kohanim, whom he granted ownership of the project by granting them the donations that were intended for the Bedeq haBayit funds. After a while, the king investigated and found that the Kohanim had been hoarding the money, according to Radaq in a desire to first amass a very sizable sum and only then make major capital expenditures. [Radaq’s explanation is confirmed by the spirit of cooperation, whereby the Kohanim were pleased with the King removing that responsibility and the concomitant rights from the Kohanim (Melakhim II 12:9).]
Despite the fact that the Kohanim had failed in exercising their monarchically imposed mandate, the king, who had now instituted the use of a box with a slit, very much like large charity collection boxes in synagogues and elsewhere, still trusted the workmen to freely draw from the temple repair fund to pay for their work:
וְלֹ֧א יְחַשְּׁב֣וּ אֶת־הָאֲנָשִׁ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִתְּנ֤וּ אֶת־הַכֶּ֙סֶף֙ עַל־יָדָ֔ם לָתֵ֖ת לְעֹשֵׂ֣י הַמְּלָאכָ֑ה כִּ֥י בֶאֱמֻנָ֖ה הֵ֥ם עֹשִֽׂים׃
Moreover they reckoned not with the men, into whose hand they delivered the money to give to them that did the work; for they dealt faithfully. (Melakhim II 12:15)
The Hebrew Maidservant
All three questions stem from a common fallacy, of projecting our modern associations onto the canvas that is the world of yesteryear, the premodern society. In case of the Hebrew maidservant, by calling her master a slave owner, we set the mistaken tone of our investigation. By focusing on the fact that the girl had been sold into servitude, we identify her as a slave and her buyer as a slave owner; their relationship is clearly one of servitude. However, by focusing on another aspect of the Hebrew maidservant, we see a different pattern emerge. She is sold by her father, who, by the way, generally has the power and right to marry off his minor daughter, which involves receiving the betrothal gift from the groom, rather than having it given to the girl, who, as we stressed above, is a minor. The Hebrew maidservant, too, is a minor, who is sold by her father, and, there is an expectation that either the master or his son will marry the maidservant and turn her into a full fledged wife, with all concomitant rights. Scripture looks negatively upon the master who neither marries the maidservant himself, not betroths her to his son. Furthermore, if either the master or his son do decide to marry the maidservant, no additional betrothal gift is called for; the money originally paid for the initial transaction with the maidservant’s father is retroactively considered as a betrothal gift. Finally, even the betrothal must happen before the girl hits puberty, for with puberty, she would automatically become free. By the way, with puberty, the girl’s father would also lose the prerogative to marry off his daughter.
Upon reflection, the Hebrew maidservant may seem more like a bride than a slave. Indeed, numerous commentaries point out that this is essentially a marital relationship. This is reinforced by the fact that the girl must have been very young, say six or seven years old, when she was sold, because she would go free after six years of servantship, or when the Jubilee year begins, or when hitting puberty, whichever comes first.
It seems that this form of servantship was a way through which the very poor – who would surely be the only ones willing to “sell” themselves into servantship – could still find a descent future husband for their daughters. Indeed, Tosafot in the Talmudic Tractate Qidushin point out that, despite our sages opposition to the practice of betrothing minor girls against their will, there were times in Jewish history when dire economic straights made the betrothal of girls as minors the only avenue for parents to properly insure their daughters’ well being.
Thus, the master was not a slave driver, whom we might very well regard with suspicion, but a potential husband or father in law, who can be expected to act with kindness and compassion towards his wife or daughter in law; the Torah’s trust in him is not misplaced.
The Enticer and the Enticed
Assymetric relationships, where the man is considerably older and more powerful than the woman, are rather unhealthy, particularly when the weaker partner (usually the woman) is young, or – gasp! – a minor. Many countries have laws against what is deemed statutory rape, engaging in a sexual relationship with a minor who is too young to feel free to rebuff the advances of an older, more powerful suitor. Projecting our reality upon the canvas of the past, we are revulsed by the idea that such a suitor could marry a minor girl he enticed and would merely be fined fifty Sheqel. In our understanding, such a vile pedophile should never be trusted to marry the girl.
Who says, however, that the suitor was an older adult? Sure, when we hear the suitor talk to the girl’s father about marriage, we instanttly imagine him being at twenty five or thirty years old, or, at the very least, twenty, while the girl is a mere eleven, for example. We don’t imagine a fourteen year old suitor recognizing having acted improperly and wanting to marry the girl, anyway; that is adult behavior.
We live longer and have the luxury of remaining in adolescence longer than our fore bears, who had to accept grave responsibilities upon themselves at a young age. For us, young people who are hitting puberty have no business thinking about marriage. However, this was not always the case. In 17th Century Germany, Glueckel of Hammeln, author of the first known memoirs written by a Jewish woman, married at fourteen; her husband was fifteen. At other times, couples could be even younger. Since the couple would remain for the first few years in the parental household, they actually coped quire well with their extensive responsibilities, despite their young age.
Furthermore, marriages between adult men and pubescent girls are common in certain cultures. Thus even the age of the suitor may not always suffice to tell whether or not a union is to be approved or disapproved of. Hence, explains Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Torah takes a shortcut, trusting that the father will make the decision that is in the best interest of the child, which may, at times, and in certain historical periods, involve marrying her off at a young age, and you can be sure that the father will vet his potential son in law properly, for who wants his daughter to marry a pedophile.
As for the first two questions, so, too, for the third and last question. When we read of Kohanim who could pocket the donations to the temple treasury, while being given the responsibility to fund the temple repairs, we see, written in large, bold letters, CONFLICT OF INTEREST. We expect them to act dishonestly, because through numerous scandals, we have been conditioned to expect such dishonesty to develop.
However, as we can glean from the fact that the Kohanim were not at all displeased by the new arrangement (וַיֵּאֹ֖תוּ הַכֹּֽהֲנִ֑ים לְבִלְתִּ֤י קְחַת־כֶּ֙סֶף֙ מֵאֵ֣ת הָעָ֔ם וּלְבִלְתִּ֥י חַזֵּ֖ק אֶת־בֶּ֥דֶק הַבָּֽיִת׃ – “And the priests consented that they should take no longer money from the people, neither repair the breaches of the house” – Melakhim II 12:9), it seems highly unlikely that they had just lost a lucrative sideline. Instead, it seems like they were happy to be released from their obligation. According to Radaq, they were happy no longer to be under a cloud of false suspicion.
Again, we were guilty of projecting our current attitudes onto the past. Today, we would keep a ledger, with double entry bookkeeping and external auditors. However, such administration neither existed nor was it practical before the development of modern information systems. And so, trust was inherently a large part of how the system worked. Perhaps the threat of government investigation was enough to keep the craftsmen honest, or perhaps they were carefully vetted, and only those who were found most trustworthy were allowed to participate in the temple repairs. Either way, the trust Scripture put in these craftsmen seems not to have been misplaced.
While sometimes our modern attitudes may (but do not always) reflect the moral and ethical progress of centuries of continuous refinement by the light of Torah and mitsvot, our attitudes can cloud our ability to understand the timeless Torah, which speaks to all generations, including those who had slightly different habits than we do. Openness towards the realities of different societies in which Torah was lived allows us to recognize how the Torah’s high behavioral expectations can be met. May we indeed always be honest like Yehoash’s craftsmen, and and care for the conjugal well being of the poor and downtrodden, as a parent cares for his children and as the Torah expected the father to act both regarding the Hebrew maidservant and regarding the enticed, in the best interest of the weak and downtrodden.