Lecture #15a: Letter 89 - Part I - Slavery

  • Rav Tamir Granot



By Rav Tamir Granot



Lecture #15:  Letter 89 – Part I – Slavery



The first part of Letter 89 addresses the subject of slavery. The question posed by R. Seidel, which we attempted to reconstruct in the Introduction to the previous lecture) concerns the moral position presented by the Torah. Seemingly, the Torah permits slavery, which we perceive as a negative moral phenomenon. Why does the Torah not oppose slavery? Why does it not declare all-out war against this phenomenon, instead of recognizing and regulating it?


It appears that there is more to the matter than this. Seidel was apparently aware that in biblical times, slavery was accepted throughout the world, including among the most highly developed civilizations at the time.  The Greeks, for example – including their greatest philosophers, Plato and Aristotle – regarded slavery as normal and proper. In the historical context, the Torah’s rules are essentially no different from the laws that applied anywhere else.  It is precisely this point that gives rise to the problem, although it is not stated explicitly. A more profound question arises here concerning the eternal character of the mitzvot: are the mitzvot a function of their historical context, and thus limited (to a greater or lesser extent) to their own period? Does such an idea not represent a most serious insult to the Torah, its sanctity, and the principle of its eternity?


Rav Kook’s response is comprised of different layers. One part provides anthropological and historical commentary, while the other part sets down principles regarding the reasons for mitzvot and is related to historical, cultural analysis.


We shall focus here on the first part of the letter, leaving the general, theoretical aspects for a different lecture, which will address additional matters concerning the reasons for the mitzvot.


Rav Kook’s discussion here could serve as a good example of the way in which our thought is liable to grow subservient to modern modes of thinking and a modern world-view. Slavery is perceived as a disgrace by any cultured modern person – including, most likely, our readers.  For most of us, this view was probably established on the basis on the legends of the American Civil War and the historical battle against slavery. In addition, as a cultural phenomenon, we view slavery as being opposed to the most fundamental values of modern civilization: it negates human freedom, it includes elements of humiliation and degradation that violate human dignity, and it negates – in a most profound sense – the principle of human equality, as it perpetuates hierarchical relations of mastery and subservience as fixed, unchangeable strata. This last problem became most acute with respect to the socio-historical aspect of slavery in America – a matter which is also addressed by Rav Kook – since slavery was mainly the fate of Africans, or “the children of Cham,” as he refers to them. This fact lends the inequality among people a racial dimension – in the moral sense, perhaps even a racist dimension.


A review of Rav Kook’s discussion reveals a most surprising and non-standard perspective. Despite the Rav’s profound awareness of the cultural context, of humanism and liberalism, he is undaunted in his complex and direct view of the problem from its moral and historical perspectives – even though he would surely have known that if his letter were to be published, it would not receive a popular welcome.


In order to better understand Rav Kook’s exposition, we must address the following questions:

1.  How does the Torah describe slavery – as a positive value, a negative value, or in some other way?

2.  As Jews, do we accept the values mentioned above (liberty, equality. etc.) in the sense in which they are generally understood today – such that we reject slavery – or not?

3.  Does slavery, as a phenomenon and as a spiritual act, include positive values?

4.  What is the human, moral ideal as we see it? In other words, what do we expect will happen at the End of Days, in the ideal reality?


We shall now try to answer these questions.


1.  Slavery in the Torah


It seems that we must start by uprooting no small number of preconceptions.  A narrow familiarity with the subject, limited to the unit on the “Hebrew slave” (eved Ivri) in Shemot 21, leads many people to think that the Torah permits slavery and does not negate it in any way. There is a tendency to compare the laws of the slave to the law of a beautiful woman captured in war (eshet yefat toar). Just as in the latter case, Chazal taught that “the Torah only says this to counteract the evil inclination,” in the former case, the same must be true: the Torah permits slavery only in response to the ‘social evil inclination’ –the economic and human forces active in ancient times. These were so powerful that had the Torah not permitted it, slavery would have continued under prohibition.


However, such a view is very limited, and perhaps entirely incorrect.  We cannot arrive at an accurate understanding of the Torah’s view of slavery without first addressing the clear distinction between an “eved Ivri” and an “eved Kena’ani.”


Eved Ivri


The Torah talks about an eved Ivri in three different places.  The first source, Shemot 21:1-6, is indeed neutral, and describes the acquiring of the eved in causal terms (“if a then b”), without expressing any value judgment.  Nevertheless, the very fact of the limitation that the Torah places on the period of indenture – “Six years shall he serve, and in the seventh he shall go free, for nothing” – neutralizes to a considerable degree the negative significance of his status. A person whose indenture is limited in time does not suffer the absolute loss of his liberty and status; he simply relinquishes them for that period of time. Moreover, from the word “chinam” (“for free”) Chazal learn that the eved Ivri is able to redeem himself from his master for money even before his six years of service are complete. This brings his status even closer to that of a regular hired worker.


In Devarim 15:12-18, the Torah goes a step further and compares the eved Ivri explicitly to a hired worker in justifying the obligation to free him after six years: “Let it not seem hard to you, when you let him to free from you, for he has served you double the hire of a hireling for six years…”  This parasha also awards further benefits for the eved Ivri: not only is he released for nothing after six years, his master is also commanded to give him “from your flock, from your threshing floor, and from your vineyard” – a sort of parting gift or compensation package for his period of indenture.  Even at the very outset, when the servant is taken on, the Torah refers to him as “your brother” (“If your Hebrew brother is sold to you…”), meaning, “equal to you,” “like you.”  Finally, the parasha discusses the possibility of a servant who wants to stay on with his master, “for he loves you and your home and it is good for him with you” – in other words, the relationship between a master and his eved Ivri may even be one of real fraternity and friendship.


However, the clearest source on the question of the attitude towards the eved Ivri is to be found in Vayikra 25:39-46. Here the Torah speaks not in general terms and hints, but rather in very clear negative commands:


And if your brother grows poor and sells himself to you, you shall not work him as a slave. As a hired servant, as a resident shall he be with you; until the Jubilee year he shall serve with you… For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as bondmen. You shall not rule over him with vigor; rather, you shall fear your God.


In other words, the acquisition of an eved Ivri might resemble the acquisition of a slave, but in truth it is not the same – and dare not be the same. The Torah negates the slavery of an eved Ivri by limiting its duration, by stipulating that release is “for free,” and by limiting the extent to which the master may subjugate him (“As a hired servant, as a resident shall he be with you;” “You shall not rule over him with vigor”).


Chazal go even further and teach: “One who acquires an eved Ivri is like one who acquires himself a master” (Kiddushin 20a). Moreover, the negation of slavery became a sort of super-principle in halakha in relation to labor law. Thus, for instance, Rav establishes that a laborer may retract his agreement to work – even in the middle of his labor – and he suffers no sanction as a result (as a person usually would in the event of changing his mind after agreeing to something). This is based on the verse, “‘For Bnei Yisrael are My servants’ – [meaning,] ‘They are My servants and not servants of servants’” (Bava Metzia 10a). The halakha anchors the principle of negation of slavery so strongly that it rules out a situation in which a day-laborer might be forced to carry out his commitment without any possibility of retracting his agreement – because his situation at that point resembles a situation of slavery!


R. Mordekhai Breuer, in the introduction to his Pirkei Mo’adot, proposes that the above three parshiot be read as different aspects of the attitude towards slavery. Even if we accept his view, the Torah’s ideal is to be found in the verses from Vayikra, while the source from Shemot reflects a compromise with reality. Even there, there is no sale into slavery in the most important sense of the term – eternal subjugation against the will of the slave.  Hence, the two parshiot jointly convey a clear sense of the rejection in principle of the concept of slavery.


Eved Kena’ani


The situation is different when it comes to an eved Kena’ani.  Here, the Torah permits slavery (Vayikra 25:44-46), perhaps even obligating it to some extent (whether as a voluntary act or as a mitzva): “Of the nations that are round about you, of them shall you acquire bondmen and bondmaids… you may work them forever.”


The concept of eved Kena’ani expresses the special nature of this license. 


Many obligations in the realm of inter-personal relations apply only among Jews.  This is especially true in the case of those mitzvot that make non-standard moral demands: returning lost property; helping someone with his donkey collapsing under the load, even if there is usually animosity between you; refraining from gossip, etc. The specification in the Torah is made through the use of the terms “your neighbor” or “your brother.” In the instance of the prohibition on charging interest, the Torah even tells us explicitly, “to the gentile you may lend with interest” (Devarim 23:21); here too, the possibility arises that this is not just a voluntary matter, but an actual mitzva.


Yet specifically in the laws concerning an eved, the Torah does not use the usual distinction between “your brother” and a gentile, specifying instead that slavery is reserved for those “of the nations that are round about you” – i.e., the Canaanites. In the background, we hear the unmistakable echo of Noach’s curse: “And he said: Cursed is Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be for his brothers” (Bereishit 9:25). Hence, the license for slavery when it comes to the Canaanites is not just a general license, as in the case of actions which are prohibited only in relation to Jews, but even some dimension of obligation.


How are we to relate to this distinction between Jews and non-Jews? Is it the prohibition of slavery amongst Israel that expresses the Torah’s moral stand, while concerning the other nations there is temporary permission – until the world develops morally and its civilization rises to the level where it can be abolished? Or is the license for slavery the essential attitude, while fellow Jews are shown extra kindness and a greater degree of fraternity, such that for them slavery is ruled out?


Rav Kook’s position relates to both aspects of the Torah’s attitude towards slavery: its negation amongst Israel, on one hand, and its license when it comes to Canaanites, on the other.


(To be continued)


Translated by Kaeren Fish