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Why is a slave sold for six years? He's being sold for stealing. So he should be sold for the amount of time it takes to make enough to pay back the stolen amount.

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1. Why is a slave sold for six years?

Because the Torah decided so. Maybe because 6 years is a full cycle - as we see that the agricultural cycle is 6 years and in the 7th year everything stops for a year (Shmitta).

Note that the slave's 6 years and the Shmitta cycles are independent. A slave works during Shmitta if it's within his 6 years.Source הלכות עבדים - פרק שני

ב': מְכָרוּהוּ בֵּית דִּין עוֹבֵד שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים מִיּוֹם מְכִירָתוֹ וּבִתְחִלַּת הַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִית שֶׁלּוֹ יֵצֵא בֶּן חוֹרִין. וְאִם פָּגְעָה בּוֹ שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה בִּכְלַל הַשֵּׁשׁ הֲרֵי זֶה עוֹבֵד בָּהּ. אֲבָל אִם פָּגְעָה בּוֹ שְׁנַת יוֹבֵל אֲפִלּוּ נִמְכַּר שָׁנָה אַחַת לִפְנֵי הַיּוֹבֵל הֲרֵי זֶה יֵצֵא לְחֵרוּת שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ויקרא כה-מ) 'עַד שְׁנַת הַיֹּבֵל יַעֲבֹד עִמָּךְ' (ויקרא כה-יג) 'בִּשְׁנַת הַיּוֹבֵל הַזֹּאת' וְגוֹ':‏

But whatever reason you're going to get/give you'll have to explain why a pauper who sells himself into slavery can do so for longer than 6 years. Source: Rambam: הלכות עבדים - פרק שני

ג': הַמּוֹכֵר עַצְמוֹ יֵשׁ לוֹ לִמְכֹּר עַצְמוֹ לְיֶתֶר עַל שֵׁשׁ. הֲרֵי שֶׁמָּכַר עַצְמוֹ לְעֶשֶׂר שָׁנִים אוֹ לְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וּפָגַע בּוֹ יוֹבֵל אֲפִלּוּ אַחַר שָׁנָה הֲרֵי זֶה יוֹצֵא בַּיּוֹבֵל שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ויקרא כה-מ) 'עַד שְׁנַת הַיֹּבֵל יַעֲבֹד עִמָּךְ':‏

2. He's being sold for stealing. So he should be sold for the amount of time it takes to make enough to pay back the stolen amount.

As the Rambam in הלכות גנבה - פרק שלישי teaches us, the Torah says otherwise.

י"ד: הָיָה קֶרֶן הַגְּנֵבָה שָׁוֶה מֵאָה וְאֵין הַגַּנָּב שָׁוֶה אֶלָּא חֲמִשִּׁים הֲרֵי זֶה נִמְכָּר וּשְׁאָר הַקֶּרֶן עִם הַכֶּפֶל עָלָיו חוֹב עַד שֶׁיֵּצֵא בַּשְּׁבִיעִית וְיַעֲשִׁיר וִישַׁלֵּם. הָיָה הַגַּנָּב שָׁוֶה מֵאָה וְאֶחָד אֵינוֹ נִמְכָּר שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות כב-ב) 'וְנִמְכַּר בִּגְנֵבָתוֹ' עַד שֶׁיִּהְיוּ דָּמָיו כֻּלָּן מֻבְלָעִין בִּגְנֵבָתוֹ:‏

A slave is only sold if his value - for a 6-year sale - is equal or less than the amount he stole. The remainder of the debt he has to pay back at a later stage when he earns the money as a free man.

To answer your question:

The sale of the slave is not so much to punish him, nor all about getting him to reimburse the money he stole, but to rehabilitate him.

Living with a good family for 6 years and seeing how honest people behave, while being a slave who owns nothing of his own, will hopefully get him to realize the concept of mine vs. yours.

  • How do you understand "וְאֵין הַגַּנָּב שָׁוֶה אֶלָּא חֲמִשִּׁים " - he's worth 50 for 6 years? For 1 year? Rambam only says he can't be enslaved twice for the same steal. – Al Berko Feb 2 at 18:46

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