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Slavery in the Torah

Shalom Aleichem,

From a comparative standpoint the laws of the Torah regarding slavery (both those explicitly in the Torah sh’bichtav and those in the Torah shebaal peh) are superior to those of the other nations of the day and even those practiced in the United States less than two hundred years ago. Indeed the value placed on freedom in the Torah helped influence the modern world to prohibit the practice.

Nevertheless while I can understand why the Torah may not prohibit the practice outright (since we see from the Navi even the halachos that were given were not observed and ‘one who grasps too much grabs nothing’) yet I find it very difficult to understand why the Torah allows someone to own another person as personal property the way one would own a kli or a behamah (כי כספו הוא)?

Furthermore I find it difficult to understand why the emancipation of slaves (עבד כנעני) is prohibited, even if there are a variety of leniencies in this regard.

These ideas seem to be very difficult to reconcile with דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד ? Does the Rav have any thoughts that can help me understand these issues?


As you mentioned from a comparitive standpoint the Torah’s rules for slavery are just and fair, non abusive and productive. During any point in history that slavery existed, Jewish owned slaves were far better of than others. As such one could argue that being that slavery would exist, the Torah provided a moral and just framework for it. At many points in history the safest place for a slave was with an owner who provided food, shelter and protection. In our day and age slavery is no longer practiced, not by the world and not by the Jewish people. The technical, halachic, and practical reasons which prevent the existence of slavery, may be understood as part of Hashem’s hashgacha to cease this practice in our day and age.

Nevertheless the Torah is the Book for all eternity, and so the concept of “slavery” has to be understood in an absolute sense, just and fair at all times. While slaves were bought and sold, there is certainly no comparison between the “owning” of slaves and the owning of a person’s property. A person’s vessel or animal is his his to do as he sees fit  [within th econfines of halacha]. A close examination of the Torah concept of slavery reveals more of a relationship than of an ownership. The concept of כספו הוא is a reflection of how this relationship is formed, but not it’s nature. After all this same concept applies to one’s wife who is acquired through a monetary transaction of sorts. Yet clearly the husband wife relationship is not regarded as ownership rather a relationship.

Rav S.R. Hirsch writes that the word שפחה shares the same root as the word משפחה. In the Torah concept of עבדים, a non Jew who becomes an עבד, very much becomes a part of the family. After all they for the most part become Jewish, and are now chayav in mitzvos as is a woman. This is not an act of subjigation but rather one of the Torah’s many ways of enabling us to spread the light of Torah in the world and uplift others to higher levels of morality and holiness. People selling themselves or being sold into slavery, who would otherwise be taken advantage of, we are told to give them a meaningful and healthy life structure, and ultimatley to become part of the Jewish people.

Growing up in Western society, we are used to the concept of locking up criminals and the like in jail. He broke the law – lock him up! Does this system serve it’s purpose to keep criminals off the street? To an extent. Has it worked as a rehabilitative tool to better people and society? Not really. Most people who have done time are likley to do some more. The Torah tells us ונמכר בגנבתו, when a person has sunken to the point of theivery, we don’t lock him up. We give him work within a healthy family structure. How is he treated? כל הקונה עבד כקונה אדון לעצמו. And so upon closer examination we find that the Torah concept is not the classical idea of slavery, but rather a more productive, humane and even meaningful concept. [much of the above are ideas conveyed by the Rav shlit”a]

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