The Bible Says What? ‘If your slave refuses freedom, pierce his ear’

The Bible Says What? ‘If your slave refuses freedom, pierce his ear’

Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers takes a controversial topic from the torah and applies a modern progressive angle

“And if the slave shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free: Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever.” Exodus 21:5-6

My six-year-old is desperate to have her ears pierced. This has left me feeling curious about Jewish approaches to ear piercing and I wondered if, because of this verse, there might be a similar traditional avoidance as with tattoos (although clearly across the community it is common practice).

Piercing in the example here was a way to demarcate a slave. However, we are told in several contexts that both male and female ear piercing was normal and acceptable.

Rashi explains that men would walk in the marketplace with earrings denoting their professions (Shabbat 11b). I wonder what a rabbi’s earring would look like? Do I need to go out and shop for some?

Is it also possible that this professional earring custom stems from Exodus, where we see this verse suggesting a kind of punishment for a slave who refuses his freedom?

He would have been permanently identifiable as a slave who has turned down freedom by the ‘aul’, or the hole or scar left in his ear.

The slave’s motives seem like good ones. He is happy in his life, he has a wife and child who he doesn’t want to leave behind. So why would the Torah encourage a punishment for those who turn down their freedom?

Perhaps this is a reminder that after being created as a nation on the back of our freedom from Egypt, we must always seek out the greatest individual freedom. To choose otherwise permanently marks us out as different.

  • Debbie Young-Somers is Reform Judaism’s community educator 
read more: