According to Jewish law, a Jewish slave could not be mistreated and was reputed to be a “master” to his owner. Recognizing that this situation may encourage an eved ivri to choose to remain with his master, the Torah allowed for such a possibility (Shemot 21:5). According to the Torah, such an eved can choose to have his ear pierced with an awl (Shemot 21:6), at which time he will serve his master “forever.”
The Gemara in Massekhet Kiddushin (21b) discussed the laws of an eved ivri who chooses to remain with his master. Will he remain with the master’s son after the master’s death? How long is “forever”? How must the technical application of the law that requires the eved ivri to have his ear pierced be applied? Must it be done with an awl?
Based on a close reading of the pesukim, the Gemara concludes that the eved nirtzah – the slave who has had his ear pierced – is only obligated to work for the master, and not his son. The term “forever” means until the yovel. The Gemara on today’s daf brings the discussion regarding the ear piercing itself, where Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi rules that it can be done with any metal implement, while Rabbi Yosei b’Rabbi Yehuda allows it to be done with other sharp objects, including a sole (a sharpened piece of wood), a sira (a thorn), a maḥat (needle), and anything that is held in one’s hand.
The biblical sira is identified with the contemporary Sarcopoterium spinosum, a member of the Rosaceae family. This thorny plant is a low growing shrub that is very common in Israel, particularly in the hilly areas north of Be’er Sheva where it covers large areas near cultivated fields. Its branches are wooden, ending in branched thorns. The leaves are compound and pinnate; winter leaves are relatively large compared to the smaller summer leaves. Flowering season is from March to April. Its fruit is round with a brown-red color. Due to its thorns and intertwined leaves, objects can enter the shrub easily, but it is very difficult to remove them.