How Can the Torah Sanction Slavery? by Shlomo Klapper


For morally sensitive readers of Tanach, the Torah’s apparent sanction of slavery is very troubling. How can the Torah, which we believe to embody divine, eternal, everlasting ethics, give its imprimatur to something as base as slavery? Indeed, not only does slavery offend natural morality, but it also offends one of the Torah’s endogenous and cardinal ideas, namely, that man – all men – are created in the image of God, BeTzelem Elokim. Slavery debases the Tzelem Elokim of both the slave and the slave-owner. How, then, can the Torah condone this morally troubling institution?

It should be noted, ab initio, that the Torah’s laws of slavery relate only to Kena’ani (Gentile) slaves, but do not apply to Hebrew slaves. Nonetheless, the question remains.

Through an astoundingly insightful close reading of the text, Rav Elchanan Samet shows that the Torah’s condoning of slavery is not only not immoral, but also years ahead of its time. The Torah was forced to condone slavery because it was an economic necessity of the time, but the fact that Chazal legislated slavery out of existence is further proof that the Torah’s arms were tied, so to speak, when condoning slavery. However, the Torah insists that slavery must abide by its terms; that is, by maintaining the slaves’ Tzelem Elokim.

In other words, Rav Samet shows that the Torah insists that slaves are people, not property. Though this might seem obvious to us, this was far from obvious to every surrounding culture in the Ancient Near East, where slaves were very much property. In fact, slaves were not seen as people throughout the vast majority of human history (with notable, yet very few, exceptions), until the 18th century with the rise of the international abolitionist movement. With this context in mind, we can see how stark was the Torah’s departure from its cultural norms when it insisted on the dignity of each human being.

Rav Samet musters three pieces of evidence for his claim from the laws of Eved Kena’ani: first, the organization of the slave laws themselves; second, the law that killing a slave with a staff is a capital offense; third, the law that a slave goes free if mutilated.

The laws of the slave are spread seemingly haphazardly throughout Perek 21, which is surprising, considering that Parashat Mishpatim’s laws are very organized. Why are the slave laws not grouped in one place? Rav Samet shows that although the laws pertaining to slaves are indeed different from those pertaining to other people, slaves are grouped with people and most definitely not with property. When Perek 21 groups its laws by three types of damage, it places the damages inflicted on a slave with the corresponding damages to a free person: a lethal blow that might lead to delayed death (free person: Pesukim 18-19; slave: 20-21); mutilating a limb (free: 22-25; slave: 26-27); a goring ox (free: 29-30; slave: 31). Indeed, were slaves property, the slave laws would be grouped between the laws of damaging a person and his property (animals, possessions, land) in the next Perek. Since the laws are grouped in this order, we see that the slave is considered by the Torah a person, not property.

However, the law of beating a slave to death seems to contradict Rav Samet’s thesis. As Rashbam (21:19) notes, if a free person dies because of his wounds, there is no statute of limitations to prosecute the assailant – he is a murderer. However, only if the slave dies of the injury immediately is the assailant punished, but if he dies after a time lag the assailant is acquitted. Why the leniency with regards to slaves?

Rav Samet explains that this apparent leniency is, in fact, a stringency. The difference in weapons is critical. A person who strikes another does so using “a stone or his fist,” while one who strikes his slave does so using a staff, ‘Sheivet.’ This staff was not a weapon designed to kill, but rather an acceptable tool in biblical times to discipline a child (Cf. Mishlei 23:13), or, in the case of a slave, perhaps to force him to work. Indeed, one who murders using a staff is cruel indeed – it was as if one beat someone senseless with a wooden ruler, an act far beyond conscience. In fact, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Hyde is depicted as depraved insofar he beats Danvers Carew to death with a staff. So, on the one hand, a slave is permitted to be disciplined with a staff; on the other hand, the master is not allowed to be sadistic with this dispensation. Therefore, the law of “Yom O Yomayim” serves as a test as to whether the beating was legitimate discipline or murder.

This law, then, is actually a stringency. For this law of a Sheivet is a special case for a slave, in addition to the regular laws of murdering a person. In other words, this does not apply to one who strikes the slave of someone else, nor to one who strikes his own slave with “a stone or a fist” – those cases are murder. This law in particular underlines the vast gulf between Jewish law and then-contemporary law. In antiquity, a slave owner could do to his slave whatever he pleased. We find no comparable law in other ancient codes because it did not pose a problem. One could “dispose” of his slave just as he could dispose of an animal or another piece of chattel. In Mishpatim, we see that a slave is an owner’s “property” only in a contractual sense. His independent Tzelem Elokim is maintained and must be avenged for when it is violently taken.

Similarly, the law states that a slave goes free when his master mutilates one of his limbs. The Pesukim mention an eye or a tooth, but the Gemara (Kidushin 24a-25a) extends this to the 24 protruding limbs. This shows that the owner not only has not bought the slave’s life, but hasn’t even bought the slave’s body; he has bought only the slave’s labor. Again, the law for a slave is stricter than that of a free person. Whereas direct and proportional monetary compensation is paid for injuring a free person’s limb, the slave goes free on account of the eye or the tooth – and clearly, the value of the whole slave is greater than the value of the damage to a single limb.

This law is significant not only in that it prevents wanton injury to the slave, but also stands in stark contrast to practices of slave-owners in antiquity, where, as a sign of slavery, the slaves’ ears, eyes, or other limb would be severed. Thus, Tzidkiyahu was blinded by Nevuchadnetzar (Melachim II 28:7) and Shimshon by the Pelishtim (Shofetim 16:21) as a sign of slavery, and Nachash HaAmoni threatened to put out the right eye of the men of Yaveish Gil’ad, as a sign that they would be his slaves (Shmuel I 11:2). Thus, the very same action that in the ancient Near East inducted a slave into slavery, in the Hebrew law released a slave from slavery. Anyone attempting to maim his slave in this way, and thereby to establish his ownership of the slave's body, would achieve the opposite of his aim, and be forced to let his slave go free. The lesson is that the slave-owner not only doesn’t own the soul of his slave – whom he cannot kill, even under permitted actions – he doesn’t own the slave’s body either.

In sum, I propose that this Devar Torah shows that we should not willfully ignore questions nor archeological evidence that challenge our faith. When swept under the proverbial rug or when hollow apologetics are offered, these questions can fester and metastasize into something far more dangerous. Worse yet, these actions lead to a misrepresentation of Torah, Chas VeShalom. However, as I hope this piece has shown, these questions, when honestly dealt with, can lead us towards a greater appreciation of the divinity, eternality and infinite wisdom of Torah. For truly deep faith in Hashem necessitates that we also have faith that, come what may, what we believe to be true will ultimately prevail.

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