The symbolism of the pierced ear
According to Torah law if a Hebrew slave asks to stay remain to serve his master after the term of his enslavement has ended the master is commanded to pierce his ear, and he remains a slave forever.
If the servant will say: I love my master and my wife and my son, I will not go free. Then his master will bring him to the judge and bring him to the door or to the doorpost, and his master will bore his ear through with an awl, and he will serve him for ever. (Shmot 21:6)
This ear-piercing symbolizes the transition from a temporary slave-for-hire to permanent slave status, and it is a strange and unusual act. There is a historical explanation, in ancient times the piercing of the ear was used to symbolize subservience to the master and his authority. (Code of Hammurabi 282) Yet, as opposed to the laws of other nations, in the Torah the ear is only pierced at the behest of the slave. This significant difference leads us to the conclusion that the act of piercing is something negative, the result of the slave’s distorted thinking which has led him to make a poor choice.
This law is discussed in Massechet Kiddushin where two explanations are given. Both reach the conclusion that slavery is wrong- that the Torah’s position is that man is God’s slave alone and therefore when he chooses to enslave himself to another man instead he is committing a sin. But while their conclusion is the same, the path they take to get there is different. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai explains why it is that the ear specifically is pierced:
“The ear that heard on Mount Sinai when I said, ‘For the Children of Israel are My slaves,’ and not the slaves of slaves- and this person went and acquired for himself a [different] master?!”
Rabbi Shimon, the son of Rabbi, bases his explanation not on the part of the body that is pierced, but the location where the piercing is performed:
“The Holy One, blessed be He, said: The door and doorpost that were witnesses in Egypt when I passed over the lintel and two doorposts and I said, ‘for the Children of Israel are My slaves,’ and not the slaves of slaves, and I took them out from slavery to freedom- and this person went and acquired for himself a master?!” (ibid)
What is the difference between the two explanations? It’s possible that the disagreement relates to the meaning of the ceremony itself. Is the ceremony addressing the distorted mindset of the slave on an individual level- “the ear that heard,” i.e. the person who refused to internalize the values of the Torah? Or is it speaking to the institution of slavery in general, which distorts the slave’s sense of belonging and alienates him from the general ethos of the People of Israel and the covenant of redemption we share?
To fully understand this situation we should point out that the slave has two options if he wishes to remain enslaved to this master. He could choose to go free and then sell himself back to the same master or he could opt not to go free, have his ear pierced, and retain his status as a slave. The difference between the two options is that if he chooses the latter he is prohibited from having a Canaanite maidservant as his wife.
It seems then that his choice is not based in his desire to remain a slave, but rather his desire to be married to a Canaanite maidservant. The result of this unique arrangement, a Hebrew slave married to a Canaanite maidservant, is that the children of this union belong to the master. They are his slaves, and are not considered the Israelite children of the slave. (Responsa of Radbaz II, 708)
And so we find that the slave has not merely chosen slavery over freedom, ultimately he has given up his own independence and autonomy. He has forfeited all his rights, from the fruit of his hands to the fruit of his loins. This explains the parallel that Chazal draw in order to learn which ear is pierced. Chazal juxtapose the ear of the slave to the ear of a leper to learn that the right ear that is pierced. (T.B. Kiddushin 15a) This halachic juxtaposition (gezeira shava) hints to a deeper connection between the leper and the slave; both are on the fringes of society and both are isolated from the worlds of action and creativity.
The pierced ear indicates that such a lifestyle fits the distorted ambitions of the slave. From his point of view this life is ideal; he gets to be with the woman he loves without any of the responsibilities of a family. He has a steady job and makes a living unburdened by worries. Through the ear piercing the Torah calls to the slave to break out of his comfort zone, out of the social constructs that have cultivated his complacency, so he can dare to dream of a greater future and the possibilities it holds. But to do this he has to walk out the door, give up the safety that he knows and abandon his job. Moreover, he has to free his mind. In order to open himself up to the possibilities that await him outside he must think of himself differently.
The person chosen to commit this symbolic act of mutilation is specifically the master, a person with a vested interest in perpetuating his dominion over the slave. It’s the master, not a messenger and not the Beit Din. In direct contrast to the norm where the master is meant to use his position of authority to empathize with his subordinate’s lowly position, here the Torah requires him to inflict physical injury. The Torah also requires the slave to internalize that he has chosen to forfeit his basic human rights of freedom and self-determination. He has chosen injury and mutilation; this was not inflicted upon him. Slavery is not an inherent state, it is an acquired trait, and there is a way out for those who choose to take it.
Similarly, each of us must search inside ourselves to find our own self-imposed restrictions, the limitations we put on ourselves because of our comfort zone, and our failure to see possibilities beyond and dream bigger.Yet this explanation leaves us with a serious question: Why didn’t the Torah prohibit this arrangement and abolish this possibility?
In the story “Tainted Grain” by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov he speaks of two people who know that the entire world is about to eat tainted wheat that will turn everyone mad. These people must decide if they also want to eat the grain and join everyone else, or refrain and maintain their sanity. The problem is that in a world of madmen it is the sane one who is crazy. And so they decide to eat the grain, but to make a sign on their forehead that they are crazy. They are aware of their situation and in this way they have an advantage over everyone else.
Similarly, the ear piercing forces the master and the slave to stand together at the threshold. The threshold symbolizes the options open before them, the opportunity to make a different choice and find a way out of the vicious cycle. Each approaches this situation fully aware of the part he plays. The rules of the game are clear. The pierced ear will remain, reminding them of the interdependent roles they play. This is the piercing in its narrow sense, as related to the laws of slavery.
In a broader sense this law is a symbolic of the game we all play. We all have our parts. We are all slaves to reality and its rules, to the social and cultural norms that bind us. But when we look closely at this act of self-harm the slave inflicts upon himself when he chooses eternal subservience we are reminded that the world outside offers a wealth of possibilities if we choose to open the door. And even if we can’t break free of the part we play, at least we should be aware of its existence.