Limiting the Slavery of Jews

Nineteen Nisan

The word slavery has very specific connotations in our times, given the horrors American slave-owners visited upon their slaves (and then that other Americans visited upon freed blacks, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has noted in The Atlantic). But the mitzvot the Torah sets up around slavery show that that’s not the only way for it to go.

The rules limiting how owners treat their slaves would be sensible and humane without any mention of Egypt; the Torah’s connecting three of those to the Exodus adds a dimension that can teach us even when we have none of the permutations of slavery the Torah allowed.

Not the Labor of a Slave

Vayikra 25; 39-42 starts by referring to your brother becoming poor and being sold to you. As Torah Temimah notes, Torat Kohanim read that as limiting slavery to the completely impoverished. While some people might be willing to sign up for six years living in a wealthy household, even if they were servants who couldn’t leave during that time, the Torah is letting us know that is not an available choice for Jews. Servitude happens only out of financial necessity, not convenience or preference.

Second, Torat Kohanim explains that the Torah refers to this person both as your brother and as a slave to lay out the different attitudes of the parties to the relationship. The person sold should think of himself as a slave, beholden to his master, obligated to work as assiduously as he can, as a slave would.The master, in contrast, should treat the poor person as a brother. One who fell on hard times, whose services have been purchased for these years, but a brother nonetheless.

A prominent way the owner shows that attitude is by heeding the Torah’s prohibition against working the slave עבודת עבד, the labors of a slave. Rashi records Torat Kohanim’s definition, that the owner cannot assign the slave demeaning labor. His examples were the slave carrying the master’s paraphernalia for him to the bathhouse or tying his shoes. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch adds washing the master’s feet, taking off his shoes, supporting the master as he walks, or carrying him on a palanquin, and that the master isn’t allowed to lease the slave to others. This last is in contrast to most items we own, which we can choose to rent out.

The problem with these isn’t the effort involved—none of these are backbreaking labor. Torah Temimah points out that Jews may hire other Jews to perform these exact services for us, and that children are allowed to perform these services for their parents, as are students for their masters. These labors are not so inherently demeaning, in other words, that one Jew may never perform them for another. It is the combination of this Jew having been sold (with halachic ramifications, such as the master’s right to give him a non-Jewish slave woman as a second wife) along with the demeaning nature of the labor that’s the problem.

Not Selling Them

That sensitivity is also expressed in the Torah’s ruling out selling this Jew ממכרת עבד, the sale of a slave. Sifra Behar 6;1 offers two points. First, it notes that the verse started by saying עבדי הם, they are My slaves, My deed came first. A condition of the Exodus was that Jews not be treated as slaves to anyone other than Hashem.

The other meaning Sifra offers, codified by Rambam as Prohibition 258, is that these slaves not be sold on the auction block. Rambam writes that that includes a proscription against calling out the slave’s qualifications to attract a crowd of buyers. A Jew may hit a rough enough patch in life as to have to undertake slavery (or indentured servitude), but it cannot be allowed to look like ordinary slavery, from its inception.

A few verses later, the Torah says that a Jew sold to a non-Jew can always be redeemed, by paying the non-Jewish owner the remaining value on the contract. For all that the non-Jew has used the word slavery, it’s actually only a long-term contract lasting until the next יובל, yovel, the next Jubilee year.

The impossibility of selling a Jew extends to Rav’s point in Baba Kamma116b, that we are not allowed to force a Jew to live up to his contract as a day laborer. If the Jew wants to leave in mid-day, and bear the financial consequences, we cannot stop him, because Jews can only be enslaved, in the sense of irrevocably indentured to, Hashem. Wherever we can enforce it, we have to say that even a non-Jew cannot own a Jew so fully as to preclude early redemption.

Seeing Slavery in a Different Light

Rashi thinks that another part of the Torah’s concern with redeeming the enslaved Jew is that his stay in a non-Jewish household endangers his connection to Jewish observance. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch sees it as almost impossible to retain a connection to Jewish observance when in a non-Jewish household.

This is, first, a sobering reminder of how our surroundings impact us. Despite this happening in a Jewish-controlled polity (since we’re assuming we have the power to force the non-Jewish owner to accept the slave’s redemption money), the Torah still thinks living in a non-Jewish household will pull the Jew and his family away from their Jewish connection. It also implies that slavery could be welcoming enough that it would lure the Jew away from Hashem and towards his master, so quickly that we are supposed to redeem that Jew as soon as possible.

The section closes with verse 55, כל לי בני ישראל עבדים, for the children of Israel are slaves to Me. Rabbenu Yonah, Sha’arei Teshuvah III; 167, thinks the verse also obligates Jewish communal leaders to be careful not to demand more fear than necessary for their jobs. Fostering unnecessary submissiveness from Jews gets in the way of the only relationship where they should feel such complete submissiveness, with Hashem.

Aruch HaShulchan Orach Chayyim 473 takes it further, citing this verse to support his claim that the main point of the Haggadah is that we are literal slaves to Hashem. Since Hashem took us away from Par’oh, to whom we were enslaved, He became our owner. A light slavery, but slavery nonetheless.

Parting Gifts

In Devarim 15; 12-15, the Torah requires slave owners to gift their departing slaves with, as Rashi notes, items the slave worked with during his time in the master’s household that bring ברכה, such as animals and crops. (Tradition didn’t see money itself as something that leads to growth, and did not have to be part of this gift).

The minimum was 30 shekel, the amount owed the owner of a slave gored to death by someone else’s ox, as Laws of Slaves 3;14 points out. Rashi cites the Talmudic understanding that the verse expects the owner to add to the minimum, to reflect the level of blessing in the house while the slave was there.

Meaning, sending a slave free should include setting him up to start a new life, using the tools of blessing the slave had been working with in his or her time with us. That changes the slavery into a sort of extended internship, in which the slave learned skills and abilities and was then given the seed funding, as it were, to build his own successful life afterwards.

All of that, as we’ve seen before, makes sense on its own, without introducing the Exodus to the mix. But verse 15 says Hashem is commanding us to do this so that we remember that we were slaves in Egypt, from where Hashem redeemed us. Rashi explains that we would be imitating Hashem, who ensured that we left Egypt and the Sea with much wealth.

Three mitzvot about slavery remind us of how to treat others; more than that, they remind us that Hashem took us out of Egypt in a way that both set us up for a successful financial future and converted us into permanent servants, an allegiance that at a minimum we cannot allow to be superseded by anything else.