The Morality of Slavery

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley





The Morality of Slavery


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley





After the dramatic recitation last week of the Aseret Ha-Dibrot, in this week’s parasha, we find ourselves with the practical details of the statutes and the laws of the Torah.  No longer do we read of Divine Revelation.  Instead, the topics of this week’s parasha include the legal consequences of manslaughter and homicide, the proper disposal of witches, the regulations regarding lost property, brief mentions of Shabbat and the holidays, the responsibility of negligent watchmen and wild oxen, and rules regarding compensation for bodily harm.


The parasha opens with one of the Torah’s most challenging sections, the laws of slavery:


When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, for nothing. If he came in single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him. If his master gave him a wife and she has borne him children, the wife and her children shall belong to the master, and he shall leave alone. But if the slave declares, “I love my master, and my wife and my children; I do not wish to go free,” his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall remain his slave for life. (21:2-6)


To our modern sensibilities, the very concept of slavery evokes images of brutality and primitiveness.  For those who have followed the story of the Jewish People as they left Egypt, where they were held in forcible bondage for 400 years, the question is even starker: Did Bnei Yisrael leave the “house of oppression” behind only to turn into oppressors? 


This issue bothered commentators of the previous generations as well.  The Abarbanel comments here on the juxtaposition between the Aseret Ha-Dibrot at the end of last week’s parasha and the passage on Hebrew slaves at the beginning of this week's reading.  He notes that Chazal interpreted the injunction "And these are the rules" as meaning that the text which follows should be seen as adding to what preceded (that is, to the first commandment, which identifies Hashem as the one "who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage" [Shemot 20:2]). The Abrabanel suggests that the juxtaposition teaches that by taking the Jewish People out of slavery, Hashem acquired them as His own, as indicated by the midrash: "‘The children of Israel are My servants’ (Vayikra 25:58) - and not servants of servants.”


R. Samson Raphael Hirsch further develops this idea.  He notes that an eved ivri (a Hebrew servant) was not something encountered every day. Jewish courts did not sell a person, and a person would not sell himself except in the most dire of circumstances. Accordingly, even the situation of a "slave who is not a slave" came about only rarely. Even in the extreme case of a thief sold to pay for his theft, it is said, "He shall remain with you as a hired or bound laborer" (Vayikra 25:40), and we are taught that "you may not change his trade," that is, he must continue doing the skills he learned and may not be forced to do menial tasks.

To properly discuss this issue, we will quickly review the laws of slavery as they appear in the Torah and in rabbinic literature and examine three separate possibilities of reconciling these laws with our sensibilities.



The first issue that we must deal with is defining the terms by which we discuss these regulations.  According to Torah law, there are two types of servants.  The first was a non-Jew who was sold to Jewish masters, and the second was Jewish (the eved ivri).  The eved ivri is basically a hired-hand for a period of six years or until the yovel (Jubilee year) arrives, whichever comes first. There are two compelling reasons for this arrangement: either, the person has stolen items and can not afford to repay his debt, or a person facing extreme financial difficulties sells himself to provide some sort of home setting and life.[1]  When the six years of the person’s term come to an end, the eved ivri has the option to renew his indenture past the six-year period if he so desires. (He can not, however, extend it beyond the time of the yovel year).[2] In essence, the Hebrew slave is simply someone who is employed for a lengthy period.  The only thing he has in common with a regular slave is that within that period of time, he may not change his mind and leave. The non-Jewish slave, on the other hand, may stay for a longer period.  If he does not choose to adopt Jewish practices and regulations within a year after being acquired, however, he also must be set free.


Despite these rules, the Torah’s dislike of the institution shines through, as seen in both the words of the prophets and as reflected in rabbinic law:


A hired laborer only works during the day; a Hebrew bondsman works day or night. [On this, the gemara asks:] But is it conceivable that a Hebrew bondsman should work day or night? After all, it is said (Devarim 15:16), " happy with you" - eating with you, drinking with you, and enjoying shelter with you.  (Kiddushin 15a)


The next four pages in the Talmud discuss all of the regulations that protect the eved ivri from any form of abuse.  For example, he should not be made to work as a slave if he has prior training or education; his master must provide sustenance for his wife and children; the bondsman is released after the sixth year and in the jubilee year with a grant from his master; he may even redeem himself. The Talmud concludes by interpreting the verse “he... is happy with you" as follows:


Eating with you and drinking with you, for you are not to eat fresh bread while he eats stale moldy bread, you drink aged wine while he drinks young wine, you bed down on feathers while he on hay. Hence it is said that whoever buys himself a Hebrew bondsman [a slave] is as if he bought himself a master.  (Kiddushin 20a)


Tosafot ask: what is meant by buying oneself a master? Does it not suffice for a bondsman to be like a master? In what way is he more master than the master himself? Tosafot explain that in certain situations, the servant is given more consideration than his master:


As the Talmud Yerushalmi states: Sometimes, a person only has one pillow and if he lies down on it, he has not fulfilled the commandment that the bondsman “be happy with you;” but if he neither lies down on it nor gives it to his bondsman, he acts as the wicked people of Sodom. Thus, he must give it to his bondsman, and so he [the bondsman] is as master to his owner.


The halakhic works reflect this attitude.  The Rambam notes that although these protections technically only apply to the eved ivri, the wise person would behave towards his entire household with kindness:


It is permissible to work a non-Jewish servant harshly. Yet, although this is the law, the way of the pious and the wise is to be compassionate and to pursue justice, not to overburden or oppress a servant, and to provide them from every dish and every drink.  The early sages would give their servants from every dish on their table. They would feed their animals and their servants before sitting to their own meals. Does it not say (Tehillim 123:2), "As the eyes of the servant to the hand of his master; as the eyes of the maid to her mistress [so our eyes are towards the Lord our God...]"?

So, too, you should not denigrate a servant, neither physically nor verbally. The Torah made him your servant to do work, not to be disgraced. Do not treat him with constant screaming and anger; rather speak with him pleasantly and listen to his complaints. Such were the good ways in which Job took pride when he said, "Did I ever despise the judgment of my servant and my maid when they argued with me? Did not my Maker make him, too, in the belly; did not the same One form us both in the womb?"

For anger and cruelty are only found among other nations. The children of Abraham, our father - and they are Israel, to whom the Holy One, blessed be He, has provided the goodness of Torah and commanded us righteous judgments and statutes - they are compassionate to all. This is one of the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He, that we are commanded to emulate (Tehillim 145:9): "And He has compassion for all He has made."

Furthermore, all who have compassion will be treated compassionately, as was stated (Devarim 13:18), "He will give you compassion and He will have compassion upon you and multiply you.”  (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Indentured Servants, 9:8)


Notwithstanding all these restrictions, our society today views slavery in the most negative light. The claim that the laws of the Torah essentially remove a Hebrew bondsman from the class of a slave and that a Hebrew maidservant was not intended for bondage at all but for a marital relationship does not lessen this negative outlook.   How, then, to reconcile them with our modern outlook?




The first approach suggests that we err when we judge these laws without an appreciation of their background – the milieu in which they were given.  According to the laws of the ancient nations, no punishment was meted out to a master who killed his slave, as the slave was considered his property, to do with as he saw fit. Similarly, we find that other codes contain no restrictions on the extent to which a master may beat his slave, as a slave is his property. In contrast, our parasha states that a master who knocks out even the tooth of his slave must grant the slave automatic freedom. Only by way of comparison can we appreciate the magnitude of the moral and legal revolution introduced by the laws of the Torah pertaining to striking of a slave.[3]  While the Torah technically maintains the legal status of the servant’s output as belonging to his master, the Torah insists on maintaining the servant’s human value.  His life is not the master’s property.  It belongs, instead, to the One Who gave him life, and Hashem will demand his blood from the hands of those who spill it.


In his commentary Diyyukim, R. Pinchas Wolf adds a very creative question to this discussion. If the bias of the Torah is so humane, why did it allow slavery at all, whether of a Hebrew or of a Canaanite? He argues that had the Torah abolished slavery entirely, “this act would not have been felt at all and the Torah would not have achieved its intention of having an impact on all peoples." People would have rejected the innovation as another peculiarity of the Jews, like the Shabbat or shemitta:


Rather, the Torah left slavery in and of itself in existence, but improved the condition of the slave to the extent that the Land of Israel would in any case become a paradise for slaves. The life and health of the Canaanite slave are well protected (vv. 20-21, 26-27). A weekly day of rest is assured him (Devarim 5:14). Slaves from other lands would flee to the Land of Israel to find refuge and be decently treated there, and in the fullness of time, this situation would force slave owners in other countries to improve the lot of their slaves, so that in the end it would be recognized that a human being is not chattel and slavery would end of its own accord.


However, while we can appreciate the revolutionary nature of the Torah’s laws compared to ancient times, should we, supposedly the beneficiaries of more “enlightened times,” not hope and strive for more? 




One approach that has many adherents among religious Jews today, especially among those labelled the “Mercaz” circle, suggests that the Torah’s laws of servitude are, in fact, an ideal, in that they maintain both the dignity of the individual and the economic reality of the world. They suggest that there will always be poor people who find themselves in difficult straits and circumstances.  What better manner in which to help them regain both their moral bearing and their financial well-being?  This approach is best articulated by R. Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook:


You should know that slavery, as with all the moral, upstanding ways of God “in which the righteous walk and the evil stumble,” never in itself caused any fault or error. Slavery is a natural law amongst the human race. Indeed there is no difference between legal slavery and “natural” slavery. In fact, legal slavery is within the jurisdiction of Torah, and is legislated in order to control certain flaws, and this, because God anticipated the reality of “natural” slavery. Let me explain. The reality of life is that there is rich and poor, weak and strong. A person who has great wealth hires poor people - legally - in order to do his work. These employees are, in fact, “natural” slaves due to their socio-economic standing. For example, coal miners. These people go to work in the mines of their own free will, but they are in effect slaves to their employers... and maybe if they were actually owned by their employer, they would be better off!... The rich, with their stone hearts, scoff at all morals and ethics. They don’t care if the mines lack air and light, even if this shortens the life expectancy of their workers, whose numbers run into the tens of thousands, many of whom become critically ill. They certainly won’t engage in any extra expense to improve working conditions in the mines, and if a mineshaft collapses burying workers alive, they don’t care. Tomorrow they will find new workers to employ. If these people were owned by the master by legal slavery, he would have a financial interest to look after their lives and well-being, because they are his own assets. (R. Kook. Iggerot HaRaaya, vol.1, no.89)


Put simply, R. Kook suggests that servitude is like any other natural phenomenon – it can be used properly and responsibly or it can be abused. As long as some people are wealthy and powerful and others remain poor and weak, “natural servitude” will always exist, even if slavery were to be formally outlawed.  The poor will always rely on the wealthy to hire them.  It is better that the worker remain the “property of the owner,” creating a situation in which it is in the master’s best interest to look after his slave's welfare.  The owner will more often than not care about his profit sheet, not his workers’ interests. 




Another approach exists as well.  Not all the commentators automatically accept the idea that the laws of the Torah necessarily reflect the highest ideal to which we should strive.  Instead, these laws are viewed as a moral bare minimum.  Rashi, when discussing the rules regarding a “beautiful captive woman” who was taken in war, notes that Chazal stated, “dibra ha-Torah kenegged yetzer ha-ra.  The very nature of the commandment recognizes human weakness. 


In his philosophical work, the Moreh Nevukhim, the Rambam suggests that the institution of the sacrificial cult, the korbanot, was also a non-ideal phenomenon (Moreh III:32).  Instead, he suggests, it was to provide “a Jewish answer to pagan rituals.”  Had Hashem commanded the people at that time to abolish the sacrifices entirely and instead rely on verbal prayer alone, Bnei Yisrael would have been unable to comprehend the new rules.  Instead, they had to be weaned off of sacrifices, like a child, by the successive limitations on the offerings.  Similarly, we may suggest that given the prevalence of the institution of slavery in the ancient world (still heavily reliant on tremendous amounts of manpower for its agricultural needs), the total abolishment of the institution would have been beyond the comprehension of everyone at the time.  Instead, the Torah chose to limit the institution as much as realistically possible and send the clear value-based message that this situation was not an ideal to be perpetuated forever.  Ultimately, we aspire for the situation mentioned in the Abarbanel above – to be totally free from others, to properly become servants to Hashem.

[1] Here is R. Samson Rafael Hirsch’s explanation of this law:

This is the one and only case in which the Torah orders deprivation of freedom as a punishment; and how does it order it? It orders the criminal to be brought into the life of a family as we might expect a refractory child to be brought under the influence of Jewish family life... How careful is it that the self-confidence of the criminal should not be broken... it insists that he may not be separated from his wife and family... In depriving him of his liberty, and thereby the means to provide for his dependents, the Torah puts the responsibility of caring for them on those who ... have the benefit of his labors” (commentary to 21:6).

[2] Clearly, however, the Torah disapproves of the person exercising this option.  Here are the words of R. Alex Israel, who deftly summarizes this topic:

The Torah wishes the freedom of everyman. The slave who prefers the security and comfort of the artificial environment of slavery - the world where he is taken care of and his worries are dealt with by others - and is willing to trade his freedom and liberty for that comfort, is scorned by the Torah. The Talmud asks:

Why the doorpost of all the parts of the house? God said,: This is the very doorway that was my witness in Egypt when I passed over the lintels and doorposts of the houses of Israel. It was then that I said, “The children of Israel will be slaves to me,” and not slaves to my slaves, the people whom I took from Slavery to freedom. Now this person has deliberately acted to acquire a (human) master for himself - let his ear be pierced before that doorpost (Kiddushin 22b).

The Talmud continues:

Why was the ear singled out from all other limbs of the body? God said: The ear which heard my voice at Mt. Sinai saying, “The Children of Israel are My slaves and not slaves to others slaves” and went and acquired a master for himself, let his ear be pierced through.”

[3] In Kadmoniot Ha-Halakha, Shmuel Rubinstein (Kovno, 5686) writes (chapter 22):

The gemara (Kiddushin 25a) teaches: 'There are twenty-four protruding limbs of a person, for all of which a slave is set free, and these are: the tips of the fingers, toes, ears, nose, penis and breasts... Rabbi says: Also testicles. Ben Azzai says: Also the tongue.

The situation of a slave in ancient times was truly awful. He was like an object owned by his master, who was free to do whatever he wanted in order to force the slave to perform hard labor day and night, and to use him for all kinds of perverted purposes. The master could beat his slave mercilessly for any major or minor wrongdoing; he could permanently maim his limbs without fear of any punishment. For any purpose desired by the master, the slave could be blinded. Herodotus writes (4:2) that the Scythians used to blind their captive slaves so that they would work in producing butter. And there were several other such purposes for which slaves would be struck with blindness, TO THE POINT WHERE PUTTING OUT EYES BECAME A SYMBOL OF SLAVERY. Likewise, prisoners taken in war were blinded as a sign of slavery, and this was done particularly to kings and officers of the defeated army, as a sign of revenge and enslavement. For the same reason, Shimshon was blinded by the Philistines (Shoftim 16:21), and this is apparently also the meaning of the words of Nachash the Ammonite to the men of Yavesh Gil'ad: “By this condition I will make a covenant with you: if you all put out your right eye” (Shmuel I 11:2), as if to say, “In order that you will be slaves and prisoners of war to me.” For the same reason, King Tzidkiyahu was blinded by Nevukhadnetzar (Melakhim II 28:7), and this is also the meaning of the words of Datan and Aviram to Moshe, “Will you put out the eyes of those men?” As if to say, “Are we considered in your eyes as slaves, prisoners of war, that you will exert your power over us and to do us whatever you wish, to drag us wherever you decide?” This arrogance on the part of the enslavers seems to have lasted until much later times, explaining even Herod's blinding of Bava ben Buta (Bava Batra 4a).

For some wrongdoing in his work or for breaking some vessel, the slave's fingers or hands could be cut off, and this was apparently also done to prisoners of war as a sign of enslavement. This explains the amputation of thumbs and big toes by Adoni Bezek, who testifies that “seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes amputated [would gather food under my table].” This was practiced among the Romans, too: Seneca reports that “for breakage of a small vessel, the slave's hands would be cut off, or he would be put to death.”

THE AMPUTATION OF A SLAVE'S EARS WAS SO COMMONLY PRACTICED THAT IT WAS ESTABLISHED AS A PUNISHMENT FOR SLAVES. The Hammurabi Code stipulates, “If a slave strikes a free person on the cheek, his ear is to be cut off” (205); “If a slave tells his master, ‘You are not my master,’ and it is proved that he is in fact his master, then his master is to cut off his ear” (282).

Slaves were routinely castrated in order that thoughts of women would not interfere with their work, and eunuchs were also used to serve women. This was so common that the term “eunuch” came to be used for all kinds of servants, even those not castrated, like Potifar, “the eunuch of Pharaoh” (Bereishit 39:1) and the royal wine-bearer and baker who are referred to as Pharaoh's eunuchs (ibid. 40:2)…

In summary, there was nothing that prevented a master from doing any of this to his slave; it seems that they would even make the slaves deaf in order that they would not talk among themselves during their work, or for other purposes. AND THEY WOULD STRIKE OR KNOCK OUT THEIR TEETH so that they would not be able to eat much. Cicero describes how “it was common among the Romans that if a slave knew some evidence against his master, the master would cut out his tongue in order that he would not be able to testify.” And the maiming of slaves, either by purposeless beating or for some purpose desired by the master, was so common that BLEMISHES WERE INFLICTED ON THE EXPOSED BODY PARTS OF THE SLAVE IN ORDER TO MARK HIM AS A SLAVE, AND THE BLEMISHES WERE A SIGN OF SLAVERY.

It was against all of this that the Torah came to improve the lot of the slaves and their worth, as much as was possible in those days. For beating to death the Torah prescribes, “He shall surely be avenged” – which, in the view of the Sages (Sanhedrin 52b), refers to the death penalty.

For causing blemishes to the exposed body parts in order to thereby signify that he was a slave – or even without such express intent – the Torah prescribes that “he shall send him free,” which is the opposite of the purpose of creating these blemishes. From this we derive the laws stipulating that the master must set the slave free for causing blemishes upon the “exposed” body parts.