Why Is There A Mitzvah To Not Free A Slave?

Dear Jew in the City,

Why is it a mitzvah not to free a slave? That seems pretty messed up.

– Moshe

Dear Moshe,

Thanks for your question. Before I answer, let me contextualize things for readers. 

We previously discussed a question about slavery, specifically how American Jews might or might not have participated in the American slave trade. As we say there, claims that Jews controlled the slave trade is an anti-Semitic canard, the same as claims that that Jews control the media, the banks or the government. In reality, Jews only accounted for about 1% of slave holders in the South.

I received several follow-up questions to that article, one of which is this one, which I’d like to address here. Allison (the titular Jew in the City) forwarded it to me along with a screenshot of a quote from the Talmud (Brachos 47b), which cites a Torah prohibition against freeing Canaanite servants (Leviticus 25:46).

As is usually the case, things are not quite as black-and-white as the bullet point might make it seem.

First, let’s address the reason for such a mitzvah. A Canaanite servant is like a partial convert; he keeps the same mitzvos that a Jewish woman keeps, i.e., he is exempt from positive, time-bound mitzvos, like tzitzis and tefillin. A master has one year to persuade a Canaanite servant to undergo circumcision and immerse in a mikvah in order to accept this role. If the servant does not consent, he must be sold. If he does consent, he becomes a permanent member of the master’s household. 

This arrangement is considered beneficial because it removes the Canaanite servant from the service of idols and brings him closer to God. You will note that the servant doesn’t have to accept this deal; he could always choose to be sold to a member of another nation, though that would invariably be a worse option. As the Rambam writes in Hilchos Avadim (9:8), while it’s technically permitted to give a Canaanite servant heavy labor, the proper course of action is not to do so. One should treat his servants kindly, not overburden them and not cause them distress. He should feed them the same food he eats himself, and feed them first. One should not embarrass a servant because the law only requires them to work, not to be humiliated. One shouldn’t take his anger out on his servants; rather, one should speak to them gently and pay attention to what they have to say. As we have stated in the past, the Torah’s idea of servitude is very different from Black slavery in America, or Jewish slavery in Egypt.

All this notwithstanding, the idea of “he shall serve you forever” is not quite so ironclad as one might think. In fact, the entire fifth chapter Hilchos Avadim is dedicated to the laws of freeing Canaanite servants. Someone can buy the servant’s freedom with money, or give the servant money with the intention that he buy his own freedom (5:2). The master can write a document freeing the servant (5:3). A servant is freed if the master strikes him and severs a body part that won’t grow back (5:4). But wait, there’s more!

If a dying man leaves his property to a servant and then recovers, the servant is free because he was however briefly considered free (7:9). If someone sells a servant to a non-Jew, he must buy him back even at ten times the sale price and then free him (8:1). If a person uses his servant as collateral for a loan, the servant is freed immediately (8:2). If one sells a servant to the king or one of his officials, the servant is freed (8:3). If someone who lives in Israel sells his servant to someone living elsewhere, the servant is freed (8:6). (Incidental to that, I’d like to mention that if a servant wants to move to Israel, the master must comply or sell him to someone moving to Israel; if a master living in Israel wants to emigrate, he can’t force the servant to accompany him – 8:9). 

One might also free a servant for the sake of a mitzvah, even for a rabbinic mitzvah. For example, one might free a Canaanite servant if he needs a tenth for a minyan. If people are treating a servant woman promiscuously, we compel her master to free her so that she will marry. And since Canaanite slaves are only obligated in mitzvos that are performed by women, if a master has a servant perform a “men’s mitzvah,” like putting tefillin on him or calling him for an aliyah, then the servant is considered freed.

So “forever” isn’t what one might have thought, eh?

I’d like to point out something that many may find shocking: most of us live in a country that still has legalized slavery today, and most people reading this probably never objected. I refer, of course, to the United States. 

What?” you shriek. Well, it’s true. The thirteenth amendment, the one ostensibly prohibiting slavery, reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” In other words, the U.S. can and does enslave convicts.

If you ever saw a movie in which someone is sentenced to hard labor and ends up on a chain gang, breaking rocks or digging holes (e.g., Cool Hand Luke, Stir Crazy, Take the Money and Run, Holes), that’s slavery. Those guys in orange jumpsuits spiking trash on the side of the highway are doing so because they’re enslaved. Don’t believe this is slavery? According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 76% of incarcerated workers say that if they don’t work, they risk such penalties as solitary confinement and loss of visitation. That’s forced labor. 

Most people think, “Oh, that’s different. Prisoners have rights; it’s a punishment; their children aren’t born slaves; etc.” That’s all true. It’s terrible, but it’s not identical to pre-Civil War slavery, and it’s arguably better. Well, the Torah’s idea of servitude is likewise apples and oranges when compared with what we think of when we discuss slavery. (Actually, it’s more like eggs and coconuts.) One hundred years from now, forced labor for convicts might be abolished and we’ll be considered an evil generation for turning a blind eye to slavery. Most of us just don’t conflate this with the African slavery of years gone by. Similarly, don’t conflate slavery in the U.S. with the Torah’s ideas of servitude. They’re radically different concepts, and the Torah’s goal was to elevate what was then a universal reality.

In ancient times, slavery was a given, but it’s largely gone now. As progressive as the Torah’s version of servitude was, I don’t think any contemporary Torah authority would advocate for its return.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Educational Correspondent
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube

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  • Avatar photo PaulG says on April 16, 2023

    Nice work Rabbi Jack.


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