Season Two‎ > ‎Class #26 - Slavery‎ > ‎

Class Notes - Class #26

This group of mitzvot is about slavery.  We have seen two different kinds of slaves.  An “eved ivri,” “Hebrew slave,” is a Jewish man who sells himself into indentured servitude  because he cannot support himself, or is sold into slavery by the court because he cannot pay the judgment against him for certain thefts.  An “eved c’na’ani,” “Canaanite slave,” is a non-Jew owned as a slave by a Jew.  We will see other mitzvot related to slavery later in our study.

               Mitzvot #344 – 346 give us more information about eved ivri.  Mitzvah #344 prohibits a master from assigning demeaning work to an eved ivri.  Mitzvah #346 prohibits a master from requiring an eved ivri to do “oppressive” work.  Mitzvah #345 prohibits a master from selling an eved ivri at public auction. 

               The author points out that being master to an eved ivri is no easy job.  The Talmud, Kiddushin 22a, says someone who buys an eved ivri buys himself a master. The master’s responsibility to treat an eved ivri respectfully requires the master to provide the eved ivri living conditions comparable to the master’s living conditions.  The eved ivri eats the same food as the master eats, sleeps in the same kind of bed as the master does. 

A master must think carefully about what the master can require an eved ivri to do.  Lev. 25:40 compares an eved ivri to a day laborer or an immigrant who takes on work as hired household help. But an eved ivri is different from a day laborer or hired household help; the day laborer or hired help can quit if they do not want to do what the employer wants whereas the eved cannot. Mitzvah #344 prohibits the master from assigning the eved ivri degrading tasks that a day laborer or hired help would refuse to do, like carrying the master’s clothing to the bath house or carrying around a mat in case the master wants to sit down. 

Mitzvah #346 prohibits the master from assigning the eved ivri “oppressive” work.  This includes work that the master does not need, and work without a clear end.  Nor may the master assign the eved ivri work just for the sake of keeping the eved ivri busy.  It doesn’t matter whether the assigned task is difficult or easy; the key issue is whether there is need for the task or whether the task has a discernible end.

Another manifestation of the master treating an eved ivri with respect and kindness is the prohibition in mitzvah #345 on selling an eved ivri in public or at auction the way one might sell a non-Jewish slave.  The master can sell the eved to someone else, but only in a private sale.

Despite the restrictions on the master, the author cautions the eved ivri to be obedient and respectful.

The mitzvot regulating the master of an eved ivri apply when yovel was in effect and not thereafter.  Although a woman is not supposed to be the master of an eved ivri, the author says these mitzvot apply to both men and women.  Should a woman end up owning an eved ivri, she will have to treat the eved properly.

When a master treats the eved ivri properly, the master develops a habit of compassion and kindness rather than cruelty and oppression.  God wants us to be people who are kind and compassionate.  And when Jewish masters treat their Jewish slaves well, we create a society that seems virtuous and respectable. 

These mitzvot remind the master that the eved is an ordinary person who is having a hard time, a situation a master might find himself in at some later time.  The author mentions again that “what goes around comes around.”  Someone who is a master now might find himself forced into slavery because of poverty at some future time.  The author emphasizes the notion that one’s economic status is not a reflection of one’s intrinsic worth.  Someone who becomes an eved because of poverty may be poor because of hard luck, poor financial management, or even punishment for sin.  That could happen to anyone.  The eved does not deserve to be treated as a lesser person.  The author specifically says that we should be careful to treat poor people with respect. Although we no longer encounter institutions of slavery, we do encounter people of different economic status.  The shoresh of the mitzvot regulating slavery reminds us that people of lower economic status are different from people of higher economic status only in how much money they have, not in any other way.  That message is as relevant to us now as it was when these mitzvot were applicable and in our author’s time.

Mitzvah #347 deals with “eved c’na’ani.”  Even though that term seems to be about Canaanites, the author explains that it applies to any non-Jewish slave owned by a Jew.  The plight of the eved c’na’ani is harsher that the plight of the eved ivri.  None of the mitzvot we saw earlier limit how a master treats an eved c’na’ani.  The master may sell the eved c’na’ani at auction or assign the eved c’na’ani oppressive or degrading work.

In this mitzvah/essay the author explains the unique status of an eved c’na’ani.  The eved c’na’ani is in a state intermediate between being a Jew and a non-Jew.  Specifically, a male eved c’na’ani must agree to be circumcised and to give up idolatry.  The eved c’na’ani is required to do all the mitzvot that Jewish women are required to do.  The eved c’na’ani has one year after he is purchased to decide whether he agrees to those conditions.  If the eved c’na’ani does not agree, the master is required to sell him. 

If the eved c’na’ani does agree and is subsequently freed, the eved becomes Jewish when the manumission takes place.  But this mitzvah prohibits the master from freeing the eved c’na’ani except in very limited circumstances.  The master must free an eved c’na’ani if the eved suffers an injury that results in permanent disfigurement.  The eved can buy his freedom, or someone can purchase his freedom for him.  If the master sells the eved c’na’ani to a non-Jew, even a ger toshav, the eved c’na’ani goes free.  If the master puts the eved c’na’ani in a situation antithetical to the status of eved, the eved c’na’ani goes free.  For example, the eved c’na’ani goes free if the master requires the eved c’na’ani to do an act that only free adult Jewish males are required to do, like putting on t’fillin.  The eved c’na’ani goes free if the master takes the eved c’na’ani out of Israel. The master may free an eved c’na’ani if doing that advances the fulfillment of some mitzvah.  For example, the Talmud tells a story of a master who frees his slave when a tenth Jewish man is needed for a minyan.  The master may free the eved c’na’ani even to facilitate a mitzvah d’rabanan.  The author explains that the purpose of mitzvot is to increase worship of God and freeing the eved c’na’ani to enable observance of a mitzvah does just that.  In order for the master to free the eved c’na’ani, the master must provide a manumission document.  If the master is required to free the eved c’na’ani, the master can be forced to provide a manumission document. But this mitzvah prohibits the master from freeing an eved c’na’ani.  In some of the cases where the eved c’na’ani goes free because of something the master did, the master may be violating this mitzvah.

The child of an eved c’na’ani mother follows the lineage of the mother, so a child of a woman who is an eved c’na’ani is also an eved c’na’ani and belongs to the mother’s master.  That is true whether the father is another eved c’na’ani, a free man or even the master. But the child of an eved c’na’ani father also follows the lineage of the mother. The same is true of a ger toshav who sells himself into slavery.

In trying to articulate a shoresh for this mitzvah the author says that since the Jewish people have the noble mission of serving God, the Jews are worthy to own non-Jewish slaves.  Also, it is better for Jews to hold non-Jewish slave than to hold other Jews as slaves.  But Jews may not keep non-Jews as slaves unless the slave abandons idolatry, lest the slave end up a bad influence on the family. 

We find slavery, even slavery as governed by halachah, to be a problematic institution.  We have seen some of the mitzvot on this topic, and we will see others.  There are also several halachic institutions closely related to slavery, for example the mitzvot that govern the treatment of women taken as war captives.  Slavery was a reality in most human societies, as it was in the author’s society.  We will save an overall evaluation of this institution until we have seen all of the relevant mitzvot.

Finally, mitzvah #348 says we may not allow a non-Jewish master of a Jewish slave to require the slave to do the “oppressive work” we learned about in mitzvah #346.  We ought not abaondon our impoverished fellow Jew who is forced to sell himself into slavery to a non-Jewish master.  Even then, we are obliged to watch out for his welfare.  We are not required to investigate, but if harsh reality comes to our attention and we have the power to do so, we must do what we can to protect the Jewish slave from overly harsh treatment.  The author says the reason for this mitzvah is self-evident.


At the end of the mitzvot in Leviticus, the author pauses to reflect on his project so far.  We have a few more mitzvot to go before we are finished with the mitzvot in Leviticus, but this seemed like an appropriate way to end our second season of study.  The author is thinking about his dual audience, his son and friends, and also the readers of his published work.  He expresses concern about his attempt to articulate a shoresh for each mitzvah, worried that his notions are juvenile and superficial.  He explains that our understanding of mitzvot is multivalent.  Articulating a benefit for a mitzvah that a young person can understand does not preclude deeper meanings that more mature students might find appealing.  I find myself wondering what our author would say if he tried to articulate these “deeper” meanings.

Our author ends on a note of humility.  He hopes that his efforts in writing this wonderful book will succeed not in enhancing his own fame, but rather for the sake of God.  The author’s personality shines through his writing.  We are touched not only by his knowledge and erudition, but also by his humility and his encouragement to beginners in the task of mastering the content and process of halachic analysis.  As his students, we can know what the author perhaps could not, that he has indeed encouraged generations of students toward study of Torah and love of God.