Project Genesis

Mitzvos (Commandments)

Two Types of Slaves

Question: My professor pointed out that many people who have been slaves, often became slave owners themselves, and to illustrate this he cited Deuteronomy where Jews who were slaves in Egypt, and upon reaching the Promised Land became slave owners. I questioned this, saying that as I understood it, Jews could not own slaves, having been slaves, and the translation is man-servant or maid servant, as indentured, for 7 years, after which time the servant could take payment and leave, or choose to stay with the “master?? and would get their ear marked and could then even marry within the family. Unlike slavery in which the human is considered chattel.

Answer: The fact is that both you and your professor are correct – at least in part. In Exodus 21 the Torah describes a slave/master relationship that is indeed most amenable to the slave; making him little more than an indentured servant. That, however, is only talking about a native-born Jew who entered this limited (normally for a maximum of six years) term of employment and enjoyed wonderful treatment. See also Levit. 25; 42 for the source that we may only be slaves to God and not to other masters – but that, again, is only speaking about Jewish slaves. On the other hand, however, in verse 44 of that chapter, the Torah turns its attention to slaves acquired from among the non-Jews. These were, in fact, chattel and did not have all of the same protections as their Jewish counterparts. That’s not to say that they had no protections whatsoever…see Deut. 23; 16-17 for an example, but there is no question that they were treated differently. You might like to see my essay on the general subject.

With my best regards,
Rabbi Boruch Clinton

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