How could the Torah allow slavery?

Slavery in the Torah was to allow families in a state of extreme poverty to gain rehabilitation in line with social conditions at that time.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed ,

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
PR photo


In this article, I will deal with a mitzvah from this past week’s Torah portion, Parshat Mishpatim: when Yovel (Jubilee Year) applied, a Jew was permitted to sell himself into slavery, and the Beit Din (Jewish religious court) was permitted to sell a person caught stealing and unable to return the money.

However, when Yovel does not apply, a Jew is not allowed to sell himself into slavery. For only when the foundation of freedom is stable and permanent through the mitzvah of Yovel that frees all slaves, can the institution of slavery be utilized to solve difficult problems (Archin 29a).

I will first explain the mitzvah from the Torah, and then examine what the situation will be when all of Israel returns to reside in their land, and the mitzvah of Yovel applies once more.

When was a Jew Sold into Slavery

In accordance with Torah, there were only two ways a Jew could be sold into slavery:

1) when sorely impoverished to the point where he has no food to feed himself, the Torah gave him permission to sell himself as a slave.

2) A thief unable to make restitution was sold by Beit Din as a slave in order to return the theft with the fee of his sale (Rambam Hilchot Avadim 1:1).


Whoever was sold by Beit Din was sold for a maximum of six years, and if Yovel came before the end of the six years, he was released on Yovel. If after six years he wished to continue in his slavery, his ear is pierced with an awl before the Beit Din, and he continues to serve his master until the Yovel year, or until the death of his master.

A Jew who sells himself into servitude because of his sore impoverishment may sell himself for more than six years, but when Yovel arrives, he is released to freedom (Rambam ibid. 2: 2-3; 3: 6-11).

How Could the Torah Agree to Slavery?

One could properly ask: after all, the Torah considers liberty and freedom to be of great value, this being the foundation revealed on Pesach, which in the text of our prayers is called Zeman Cheirutainu (“the time of our freedom”). It is also one of the virtues of emunah (belief) in Hashem and engaging in Torah, as our Sages said: “For there is no free man but one that occupies himself with the study of the Torah” (Avot 6: 2), because by means of subjecting oneself to his Creator, the source of his life and being, and learning His Torah, he is freed from all bondage to “flesh and blood” – to man, with all his weaknesses and limitations – and to evil desires.

If so, how could the Torah agree to someone being sold into slavery?

To answer this, a basic foundation must be understood: the Torah does not force man to go against nature, because nature, for all its flaws, is a Divine creation that gives man a platform on which he can correct and perfect himself. Accordingly, the Torah does not interfere in economic market forces, but allows them to flow independently, while setting moral boundaries and giving ethical direction marking the path for improvement and advancement.

Without the framework of slavery, in times of severe scarcity people who were unable to support themselves – because they were lazy or without resourcefulness or a disaster befell them, or their land was usurped – would starve to death. By means of slavery, they survived and raised offspring, who today are free. Sometimes it was precisely the slaves who managed to survive, more than poor men who were free.

Limits and Guidance

Therefore, the Torah did not forbid slavery, rather, set moral boundaries for it, for example, the prohibition not to make a slave perform excruciating or degrading labor. And although it is permissible to hire a free man for such work, a slave, having a dejected self-image due to being sold, is more embarrassed by them, and therefore the Torah commanded to be mindful of his honor (Rambam Hilchot Avadim 1: 7-8).


It could be said that according to Torah guidance, the master is in fact a kind of educator whose house becomes a rehabilitative boarding school for a slave.
The Torah also commanded that a master is obligated to treat a servant as his equal with regard to food, drink, clothing and living quarters, as implied by the verse “for it is good for him with you” (Deuteronomy 15:16), i.e., that the master may not eat fine food and give the slave simple food, or cover himself with a fine blanket, while giving the slave a plain blanket (Kiddushin 21a; Rambam, ibid, 9). It could be said that according to Torah guidance, the master is in fact a kind of educator whose house becomes a rehabilitative boarding school for a slave.

As a Rule, Slavery Laws Do Not Apply to Women

Everything we have learned about selling a man into slavery, or buying him, applies to males who are permitted to sell themselves into slavery, to be sold because of theft, or buy slaves. However, a woman is not permitted to sell herself as a maid-servant, and even if caught stealing, Beit HaDin cannot sell her into slavery (Exodus 22: 2; Sota 23b).

Two reasons can be given for this. One, the duty of earning a livelihood was imposed mainly on men, and sometimes, without any other option, had to do so by selling themselves into slavery, and indeed, halakha requires a master to provide for the slave’s wife and children as well. The second reason is since the duty of livelihood is primarily on the man, selling a woman into slavery gravely damages her dignity, more than that of a man.

In addition, a woman is not permitted to buy slaves, because of suspicion of immoral behavior (Rambam Hilchot Avadim 1:2).

The Only Case of a Woman Maid-Servant

As explained in this week’s parsha, the only situation in which a woman can be a Hebrew maid-servant is while she is a child, if her father sells her into slavery, and in that case, her job is to assist in her master’s housework, and by no means is the master allowed to engage in relations with her.

A father may not sell his daughter as a maid-servant unless he became impoverished to the extent that he owns nothing, neither landed property, movable property, not even the clothing he is wearing, and thus, is unable to guarantee his daughter even a piece of bread every day to keep her alive. Not only that, but if after selling her as a maid-servant he managed to earn a little money, he is obliged to redeem her, and if he refuses, the Beit Din forces him to redeem her (Rambam, ibid. 4:2).

The sale of a daughter as a maid-servant is for six years, and no more. If before the end of the six years Yovel arrived, or her master died, or she began to show the first signs of maturity – the master had to release her (ibid. 4: 4-5).

The Mitzvah’s Aim

This was a tremendous salvation for the young girl, saving her from starving to death. For it must be understood that until about two hundred years ago, even in ordinary families about half of the children died in childhood from diseases and malnutrition, thus the chances of such a poor girl surviving were dismal. In addition to that, her job as a maid-servant in the home of an established family gave her work experience that could help her after she was released.

There was another hope in her sale as a maid-servant, namely, that she might appeal to her master and he might want to marry her, or marry her to his son. This in effect was the deep-seated goal of her sale into slavery, that possibly by doing so, she would get married to her master or his son, and secure her future. Accordingly, a father is not permitted to sell his daughter to someone who cannot marry her (Rambam 4:11).

Marriage to a Maid-Servant

How is the mitzvah of designating a maid-servant as a wife performed? The master tells the maid-servant in the presence of two witnesses: “Behold, you are consecrated to me,” “You are betrothed to me,” or “Behold, you are my wife” or “my son’s wife,” and the money with which she was bought as a maid-servant served for the purpose of her consecration, and thus, she became engaged.

Afterwards, they would prepare for the wedding, in which she would be married by means of chupah and Sheva Berachot according to the Law of Moshe and Israel. The Torah emphasizes that her husband honor his wife as every man must honor his wife, despite the fact she initially came to him as a maid-servant. This is the meaning of the verse: “He may not diminish [this one’s] allowance, clothing or conjugal rights” (Exodus 21:10).

There was usually a long wait between the engagement and the marriage, in order for her to mature. And even if the father obtained money for the mitzvah to redeem his daughter, if the master wanted to designate a maid-servant as a wife for himself or his son, the mitzvah of yi’ud (designation) is preferable to the mitzvah of pidyon (redemption), because it is for her good (Exodus 21: 7-11; Rambam ibid. 4: 7-9).

Marriage Age in the Past

This law existed at a time when the age of marriage for girls was around the age of twelve, and in pressing times, even earlier. However, already in the time of Chazal, le’chatchila (ideally), the instruction for boys was “At eighteen to the bridal canopy” (Avot 5:21), and for girls, before that, but not before reaching maturity. This, so they can prepare for the wedding both morally and from a Torah aspect, and reach a stage where they can bear the burden of responsibility for having a family (see, Peninei Halakha: Simchat Ha-bayit U-virchato 5:10-11, regarding the age of marriage in our times, for women and men).

Slavery Nowadays

As we have learned, the laws of slaves depend on Yovel, but when Yovel does not apply, a Jew is not allowed to sell himself as a slave, or his daughter as a maid-servant, and a Jew is not permitted to buy a Jewish slave or a Hebrew maid-servant (Rambam Hilchot Avadim 1: 10).

However, it should be added that even after all of Israel has returned to their land and resides in it accordingly, and Yovel is practiced once again, owing to our economic situation the laws of slaves will not be practiced once again.

For we have learned that slavery is meant to sustain a person so he does not starve to death, and consequently, at a time when a healthy society is able to provide food to the poor so they do not die of starvation, it must abolish slavery from the world.

In the same way, we learned that the Torah permitted a man to marry two women, nevertheless, taking into consideration all the Torah’s words, we learned that this is not desirable, and therefore when it was possible, our Sages ruled not to marry two women (see, Peninei Halakha: Simchat Ha-bayit U-virchato 10: 9).

Solutions
Today, the solution for children whose parents are unable to raise them is by a foster family. Ideally, it is desirable the foster family to be close relatives, and when they do not have suitable relatives, good parents should be chosen who can take care of the child and educate him.

And as for thieves who cannot repay their theft, with inspiration from the Torah, a way must be found in which they will be punished and repay their debt, and in the process, be rehabilitated (see, Peninei Halakha: Shevi’it ve’Yovel 10:11).

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.



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