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Isaac S. D. Sassoon





Did Israel Celebrate Their Freedom While Owning Slaves?



APA e-journal

Isaac S. D. Sassoon





Did Israel Celebrate Their Freedom While Owning Slaves?






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Did Israel Celebrate Their Freedom While Owning Slaves?

As the Israelites are being freed from slavery in Egypt, God gives Moses and Aaron a law pertaining to Israelite-owned slaves.


Did Israel Celebrate Their Freedom While Owning Slaves?

‍An Introductory Anecdote

At a small gathering a few years ago, someone was explaining that he understood the Haggadah as conveying the message that slavery is a bad thing. Otherwise why all the expressions of gratitude for freedom throughout the Haggadah? Suddenly, a rather strident voice interrupted, challenging this speaker: If you are saying that the exodus implies disapproval of slavery in principle, let me tell you young man that you are utterly mistaken. The exodus is a national story, plain and simple, because for the Jews subjugation to Pharaoh was not their destiny. Therefore, do not divert the Seder from its authentic nationalistic significance to some kind of approbation of liberty for all.

Then came the punch line: If slavery were inherently wrong, why is it that on the verge of their departure the Israelites receive instructions regarding their own slaves’ participation in the Pascal lamb? The promulgation of such instructions at that precise juncture should have disabused you of your delusions. In fact, those slave-laws leave no doubt that slavery was normal and acceptabile. This diatribe cast a pall over the gathering.

The Passover Slave Law

The challenger was referring to this verse:

שמות יב:מג וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֶל מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאַהֲרֹ֔ן זֹ֖את חֻקַּ֣ת הַפָּ֑סַח כָּל בֶּן נֵכָ֖ר לֹא יֹ֥אכַל בּֽוֹ: יב:מד וְכָל עֶ֥בֶד אִ֖ישׁ מִקְנַת כָּ֑סֶף וּמַלְתָּ֣ה אֹת֔וֹ אָ֖ז יֹ֥אכַל בּֽוֹ: יב:מה תּוֹשָׁ֥ב וְשָׂכִ֖יר לֹא יֹֽאכַל בּֽוֹ:
Exod 12:43 Yhwh said to Moses and Aaron: this is the statute of the Passover no foreigner shall eat of it. 12:44 Any slave bought for silver if you circumcise him then may he eat of it. 12:45 No bound or hired laborer shall eat of it.

The section continues with other laws related to the Passover sacrifice and ends with:

יב:נ וַֽיַּעֲשׂ֖וּ כָּל בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֧ה יְ-הֹוָ֛ה אֶת מֹשֶׁ֥ה וְאֶֽת אַהֲרֹ֖ן כֵּ֥ן עָשֽׂוּ:
12:50 All the children of Israel did as Yhwh had commanded Moses and Aaron that is what they did.

According to this section, the Israelites were not allowed to exit their own serfdom before consenting to enslave others; and if v. 50 is taken literally,[1] not before acquiring slaves and circumcising them, otherwise why issue these instructions in Egypt?!

So was the anger-management candidate correct, after all?

The Problem is Compounded by Traditional Notions of Torah

We would probably have to concede that his conclusions are consistent with premises concerning the Torah that he, and indeed many others, take for granted:

  • The Torah is homogenous.
  • It is the dictated and timeless word of God.
  • It was vouchsafed to Israel in its present form by the historical Moses no later than year 40 after the exodus.

Yet, many chafe at an idea that they perceive to be so counter-intuitive. Does the Torah really devalue liberty and human dignity, and care only about national interests?

Academic Scholarship to the Rescue

For those who have discovered some form of documentary hypothesis, the moral quandary is alleviated, if not obviated. The oldest, non-P Exodus narrative never states that the Israelites were granted explicit license in Egypt to enslave others on the threshold of their own emancipation. This contrasts with Exodus 12:43-51, which exhibits hallmarks, both linguistic and substantive, that belong uniquely to the later, Priestly stratum (P).

Priestly Hallmarks 

These include the stereotypical proem “Yhwh spoke unto Moses/unto Moses and Aaron saying” and insistence on circumcision, a rite elevated to covenantal status only by P.In fact, v. 47, which ordains that the “entire congregation” and not just the “elders” initiate the Passover rites, appears to be polemicizing with the earlier provisions found at Exodus 12:21:

Non-Priestly Text (v. 21)

Priestly Text (v. 47)

Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them go and get you sheep for your families and slaughter the Passover. The entire congregation of Israel shall do it [the Passover.]”
וַיִּקְרָ֥א מֹשֶׁ֛ה לְכָל־זִקְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֑ם מִֽשְׁכ֗וּ וּקְח֨וּ לָכֶ֥ם צֹ֛אן לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתֵיכֶ֖ם וְשַׁחֲט֥וּ הַפָּֽסַח:
כָּל־עֲדַ֥ת יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל יַעֲשׂ֥וּ אֹתֽוֹ:

So, according to Non-P, it was the elders alone that were expected to observe the Passover – a far more realistic expectation for a slave population.[42]

P’s Accepting Attitude towards Slavery

Having dealt with the likeliest provenance of the slave-condoning text, we are ready to delve into the question of P’s attitude to slavery. P’s attitude to slavery fits a pattern.

Shabbat’s Motive Clause: Slaves’ Rest or Creation?

The motive clause for the Sabbath differs in Deuteronomy and Exodus.



20:8 Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. 20:9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 20:10 but the seventh day is a sabbath of Yhwh your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. 20:11 For in six days Yhwh made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore, Yhwh blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it. 5:12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as Yhwh your God has commanded you. 5:13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 5:14 but the seventh day is a sabbath of Yhwh your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. 5:15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and Yhwh your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore Yhwh your God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day.
כ:ח זָכוֹר אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ: כ:ט שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּֽעֲבֹד וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל מְלַאכְתֶּךָ: כ:י וְיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבָּת לַי-הֹוָה אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה כָל מְלָאכָה אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ עַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָֽתְךָ וּבְהֶמְתֶּךָ וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ:כ:יא כִּי שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה יְהֹוָה אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ אֶת הַיָּם וְאֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר בָּם וַיּנַח בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי עַל כֵּן בֵּרַךְ יְ-הֹוָה אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת וַיְקַדְּשֵׁהוּ:
ה:יב שָׁמ֛֣וֹר אֶת י֥וֹם֩ הַשַּׁבָּ֖֨ת לְקַדְּשׁ֑֜וֹ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוְּךָ׀ יְ-הֹוָ֣֥ה אֱ-לֹהֶֽ֗יךָ: ה:יגשֵׁ֣֤שֶׁת יָמִ֣ים֙ תַּֽעֲבֹ֔ד֘ וְעָשִׂ֣֖יתָ כָּל מְלַאכְתֶּֽךָ֒: ה:יד וְי֙וֹם֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔֜י שַׁבָּ֣֖ת׀ לַי-הֹוָ֣ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֑֗יךָ לֹ֣א תַעֲשֶׂ֣ה כָל מְלָאכָ֡ה אַתָּ֣ה וּבִנְךָֽ וּבִתֶּ֣ךָ וְעַבְדְּךָֽ וַ֠אֲמָתֶךָ וְשׁוֹרְךָ֨ וַחֲמֹֽרְךָ֜ וְכָל בְּהֶמְתֶּ֗ךָ וְגֵֽרְךָ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בִּשְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ לְמַ֗עַן יָ֛נוּחַ עַבְדְּךָ֥ וַאֲמָתְךָ֖ כָּמֽ֑וֹךָ: ה:טו וְזָכַרְתָּ֗֞ כִּ֣י עֶ֥֤בֶד הָיִ֣֨יתָ׀ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֗֔יִם וַיֹּצִ֨אֲךָ֬֜ יְהֹוָ֤֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֤֨יךָ֙ מִשָּׁ֔ם֙ בְּיָ֥֤ד חֲזָקָ֖ה֙ וּבִזְרֹ֣עַ נְטוּיָ֑ה עַל כֵּ֗ן צִוְּךָ֙ יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֔יךָ לַעֲשׂ֖וֹת אֶת י֥וֹם הַשַּׁבָּֽת:

Deuteronomy’s Decalogue contains the phrase “so that your man-servant and maidservant may rest as you do,” and explains the origin of the law in the memory that the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt. The Exodus Decalogue has none of this; rather it explains the Sabbath as a reminder of the creation.

Traditional commentators make no secret of their discomfort in the face of this discrepancy between the two versions of so seminal a text as the Ten Commandments.[3] Modern scholarship, on the other hand, takes it in its stride. It posits that both these versions represent expansions of a putative ‘original’ Decalogue whose commandments were all as succinct and apodictic (i.e., short commands) as our 6th through 9th.[4]

The earliest ‘expanded’ Decalogue is Deuteronomy’s which appears to be the precursor of Exodus’.[5] The latter’s close parallels with the finale of P’s great creation epic (Gen 2:2-3) strongly suggests that this version of the Decalogue, at least in its current form, is Priestly in origin. Thus, we note that P was responsible for substituting creation for the slave’s rest (P could have kept both.) We cannot know for certain why P rejected Deuteronomy’s motive, though it is likely that P was less concerned about slaves’ resting than D.

The Priestly Slave Law

A callousness towards gentile slaves is manifest yet again at Lev 25:44-46. The law follows upon the requirement to free all Israelite indentured servants on the jubilee year.

וְעַבְדְּךָ֥ וַאֲמָתְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִהְיוּ לָ֑ךְ מֵאֵ֣ת הַגּוֹיִ֗ם אֲשֶׁר֙ סְבִיבֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם מֵהֶ֥ם תִּקְנ֖וּ עֶ֥בֶד וְאָמָֽה: וְ֠גַם מִבְּנֵ֨י הַתּוֹשָׁבִ֜ים הַגָּרִ֤ים עִמָּכֶם֙ מֵהֶ֣ם תִּקְנ֔וּ וּמִמִּשְׁפַּחְתָּם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עִמָּכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר הוֹלִ֖ידוּ בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם וְהָי֥וּ לָכֶ֖ם לַֽאֲחֻזָּֽה: וְהִתְנַחַלְתֶּ֨ם אֹתָ֜ם לִבְנֵיכֶ֤ם אַחֲרֵיכֶם֙ לָרֶ֣שֶׁת אֲחֻזָּ֔ה לְעֹלָ֖ם בָּהֶ֣ם תַּעֲבֹ֑דוּ וּבְאַ֨חֵיכֶ֤ם בְּנֵֽי יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אִ֣ישׁ בְּאָחִ֔יו לֹא תִרְדֶּ֥ה ב֖וֹ בְּפָֽרֶךְ:
Such male and female slaves that you shall have, it is from the nations round about you that you shall acquire male and female slaves. And also of the children of aliens resident with you of them shall you buy and also of their families that are with you whom they beget in your land; these shall become your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you to inherit as property; you may use them as slaves forever, but over your brethren the children of Israel no one shall rule ruthlessly over another.

Why is the Priestly author so keen on enslaving non-Israelites? Although a certain amount of prejudice or in-group/out-group thinking cannot be ruled out, I believe the key to understanding P’s attitude may be found in the phrase “such… slaves that you shall have.”

P’s legislation assumes that Israelites are enslaving one another, and it attempts to stop the practice. The opening words sound like a response – very likely to land owners protesting that slaves were indispensible if agriculture was to survive. In other words, the backdrop to P’s license to enslave non-Israelites can be seen as a bargain struck with influential landowners in order to gain the assurance that Jews would no longer be permanently enslaved.

Perhaps P was confronting a situation akin to that described in Nehemiah 5:1-5—another early post-exilic text—where the common people raise a great outcry against their fellow-Jews complaining that they are giving their sons and daughters as pledges for food while others are driven to sell their children into slavery.

נחמיה ה:א וַתְּהִ֨י צַעֲקַ֥ת הָעָ֛ם וּנְשֵׁיהֶ֖ם גְּדוֹלָ֑ה אֶל אֲחֵיהֶ֖ם הַיְּהוּדִֽים: ה:ב וְיֵשׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֹמְרִ֔ים בָּנֵ֥ינוּ וּבְנֹתֵ֖ינוּ אֲנַ֣חְנוּ רַבִּ֑ים וְנִקְחָ֥ה דָגָ֖ן וְנֹאכְלָ֥ה וְנִחְיֶֽה: ה:ג וְיֵשׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֹמְרִ֔ים שְׂדֹתֵ֛ינוּ וּכְרָמֵ֥ינוּ וּבָתֵּ֖ינוּ אֲנַ֣חְנוּ עֹרְבִ֑ים וְנִקְחָ֥ה דָגָ֖ן בָּרָעָֽב: ה:ד וְיֵשׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֹמְרִ֔ים לָוִ֥ינוּ כֶ֖סֶף לְמִדַּ֣ת הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ שְׂדֹתֵ֖ינוּ וּכְרָמֵֽנוּ: ה:ה וְעַתָּ֗ה כִּבְשַׂ֤ר אַחֵ֙ינוּ֙ בְּשָׂרֵ֔נוּ כִּבְנֵיהֶ֖ם בָּנֵ֑ינוּ וְהִנֵּ֣ה אֲנַ֣חְנוּ כֹ֠בְשִׁים אֶת בָּנֵ֨ינוּ וְאֶת בְּנֹתֵ֜ינוּ לַעֲבָדִ֗ים וְיֵ֨שׁ מִבְּנֹתֵ֤ינוּ נִכְבָּשׁוֹת֙ וְאֵ֣ין לְאֵ֣ל יָדֵ֔נוּ וּשְׂדֹתֵ֥ינוּ וּכְרָמֵ֖ינוּ לַאֲחֵרִֽים:
Neh 5:1 There was a great outcry by the common folk and their wives against their brother Jews. 5:2 Some said, “Our sons and daughters are numerous; we must get grain to eat in order that we may live!” 5:3 Others said, “We must pawn our fields, our vineyards, and our homes to get grain to stave off hunger.” 5:4 Yet others said, “We have borrowed money against our fields and vineyards to pay the king’s tax. 5:5 Now we are as good as our brothers, and our children as good as theirs; yet here we are subjecting our sons and daughters to slavery—some of our daughters are already subjected—and we are powerless, while our fields and vineyards belong to others.”

In fact, the reaction of P and Nehemiah are quite similar, inasmuch as both move to protect “their brother Israelites” while tolerating non-Israelite slavery.

A Hopeful Ending

P’s approval of enslaving non-Israelites was a solution to a social crisis that looked to threaten the sapling post-exilic community, and P’s mentioning of such enslavement as an element of its exodus story should probably be understood as part and parcel of this historical circumstance. But, as we have seen, it is not a vision subscribed to by other Torah sources such as Deuteronomy, that ameliorates some of the perpetual drudgery that slaves suffered by enacting a Sabbath of equality for the slave and his/her owner.

Even better are the words of the anonymous prophet whose words are preserved in Isaiah 58:6, who demands the abolition - yes the abolition – of enslavement: “Set free all who are being crushed and snap every yoke” (Isa 58:6).[6] ‍


March 30, 2015


Last Updated

August 20, 2021


View Footnotes

Dr. Hacham Isaac S. D. Sassoon is a rabbi and educator and a founding member of the ITJ. He studied under his father, Rabbi Solomon Sassoon, Hacham Yosef Doury, Gateshead Yeshivah and received his semicha from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He holds a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Lisbon. He is the author of The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition (Cambridge University Press 2011), a commentary on chumash called Destination Torah (Ktav 2001), and most recently the co-editor with Rabbi Steven H. Golden of the Siddur 'Alats Libbi (Ktav 2020).