347. Unless Literally Severed…: The obligation that Canaanite slaves work indefinitely
You shall work with them “forever…” (Leviticus 25:46)
Just as the concept of an eved Ivri, the Hebrew slave, is greatly misunderstood, so is that of the eved K’naani, the Canaanite slave. (Despite the name, the law of the eved K’naani was not limited to Canaanites; the term is merely in contradistinction to the eved Ivri.) A Canaanite slave is like a partial convert; he keeps the same level of mitzvos that a Jewish woman keeps, meaning that he is exempt from positive mitzvos that must be performed at a particular time, such as tzitzis and tefillin. The master has a year to persuade the eved K’naani to undergo circumcision and ritual immersion in a mikvah in order to accept this role. If the eved K’naani does not consent, he must be sold. If he does, he becomes a permanent member of the master’s household. Unlike an eved Ivri, the eved K’naani does not go free after six years or at the Jubilee. Under normal circumstances, he serves “forever.”
This arrangement is beneficial on a number of levels. First of all, it removes the eved K’naani from the service of idols and brings him closer to God. (Also, he no doubt enjoys a standard of living superior to being a slave in another nation.) For the Jews, the eved K’naani’s indefinite term of service obviates the need to make unnecessary use of Hebrew servants.
There are a number of reasons an eved K’naani might be released. First and foremost, if his master struck him and cost him an organ or a limb, such as an eye or a tooth, then the slave would be released. Also, since a freed eved K’naani is a full convert in all regards, a slave might be freed in order to complete a minyan (see Talmud Brachos 47b). Similarly, since Canaanite slaves are only obligated in the mitzvos in which women are obligated, if his master causes him to perform a mitzvah that is only performed by men, such as putting on tefillin or calling him for an aliyah, then the slave is considered freed.
This mitzvah applies to both men and women in all times and places. It is discussed in the Talmud in the fourth chapter of tractate Gittin (37b-40b) and elsewhere. It is codified in the Mishneh Torah in the fifth and ninth chapters of Hilchos Avadim. This mitzvah is #235 of the 248 positive mitzvos in the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos; it is not listed in the Sefer HaMitzvos HaKatzar of the Chofetz Chaim.