The Treatment of Non-Israelite Slaves: From Moses to Moses
Centrality of the Exodus Narrative Does not Erase Slavery from the Bible
God forges his covenant by a self-identification (Exod 20:2; Deut 5:6):
אָנֹכִי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים.
I am YHWH your God who took you out the land of Egypt.
The essence of Passover and/or the Matzot festival, which launches the annual cycle of pilgrimages, also commemorates the exodus, anchoring the relationship between God and Israel as Liberator and slave. We still celebrate this (combined) holiday of Passover and Matzot as “the time of our freedom (זמן חרותינו).
Yet, what disturbingly hovers over this core liberating experience is the very real phenomenon of ongoing actual slavery, recognized by the Hebrew Bible as a legitimate institution. The very Decalogue, introduced by God as a supreme liberator, the one who took you out of the land of Egypt, tacitly endorses slavery as a sanctioned component of continuing Israelite life; slaves are offered relief from their indentured lives on the Sabbath only, lapsing back into their oppressed condition the other days of the week.
Regulation of Hebrew Slavery: A Step Towards Abolition
Although it sanctions the institution of slavery, biblical law begins the process toward abolition, a process still unresolved in various parts of the world, by regulating and restricting the absolute control a master could exercise over an Israelite slave. Though limited in scope, both the Covenant Collection (Exod 21-23) and the Deuteronomic Collection (Deut 12-26) conceptually transform the Hebrew slave from pure chattel owned by the master, to some form of independent personhood bearing legal rights. This process culminates in Leviticus 25, which avoids the locution “Hebrew slave (עבד עברי)” altogether, preferring “your brother.”
Such laws as Exod. 21:26-27, mandating the release of a slave upon the infliction of physical injury by the master, are innovative for their time, and “without parallel in the Ancient Near East.”
Rabbinic Period: Making It Hard to Keep a Hebrew Slave
In the first centuries of the Common Era, rabbinic jurisprudence, which often revised biblical law to accord with its own conceptions of law and morality, advanced the biblical rules governing the treatment of Hebrew slaves in further humane directions. The rabbis take this to such an extreme, that the Talmud states, “anyone who acquires a Hebrew slave acquires a master for himself” (b. Kiddushin 20a):
כי טוב לו עמך - עמך במאכל ועמך במשתה, שלא תהא אתה אוכל פת נקיה והוא אוכל פת קיבר, אתה שותה יין ישן והוא שותה יין חדש, אתה ישן על גבי מוכים והוא ישן על גבי התבן, מכאן אמרו: כל הקונה עבד עברי, כקונה אדון לעצמו.
“Because he is well with you” – he must be with [i.e., equal to] you in food and drink, that you should not eat white bread and he black bread, you drink old wine and he new wine, you sleep on a feather bed and he on straw. Hence it was said: “Whoever buys a Hebrew slave is like buying a master for himself.”
Nahmanides: Freeing Hebrew Slaves Is Being Like God
Noting the close connection between the Covenant Collection and the Decalogue, Moses Nahmanides (1194-1270) draws a vital parallel between this “first legislation” (mishpat ha’rishon) and the first of the Ten Commandments (dibbur ha’rishon),
מפני שיש בשילוח העבד בשנה השביעית זכר ליציאת מצרים הנזכר בדבור הראשון...
[F]or the liberation of the slave in the seventh year is reminiscent of the exodus from Egypt mentioned in the first commandment… (Exod 21:2)
Israel’s consciousness of their own experience as a victim of oppression should compel them not to be victimizers, and this is enshrined in the biblical law of manumission after six years. By invoking the opening line of the Decalogue, Nahmanides creates a parallel between the Israelite owner freeing his slaves and God freeing the enslaved Israelites; thus by releasing the Hebrew slave, the Israelite owner follows in God’s ways (imitatio dei), as a liberator.
Non-Hebrew Slaves in the Bible
Up until now, we have discussed only Hebrew slaves. Non-Hebrew slaves were considered permanent acquisitions and never had to be freed. The stark contrast is seen best in the Holiness Collection, which, as stated above, denies that Hebrew can ever really be slaves:
ויקרא כה:מב כִּֽי עֲבָדַ֣י הֵ֔ם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵ֥אתִי אֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם לֹ֥א יִמָּכְר֖וּ מִמְכֶּ֥רֶת עָֽבֶד: כה:מג לֹא תִרְדֶּ֥ה ב֖וֹ בְּפָ֑רֶךְ וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶֽיךָ: כה:מד וְעַבְדְּךָ֥ וַאֲמָתְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִהְיוּ לָ֑ךְ מֵאֵ֣ת הַגּוֹיִ֗ם אֲשֶׁר֙ סְבִיבֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם מֵהֶ֥ם תִּקְנ֖וּ עֶ֥בֶד וְאָמָֽה: כה:מה וְ֠גַם מִבְּנֵ֨י הַתּוֹשָׁבִ֜ים הַגָּרִ֤ים עִמָּכֶם֙ מֵהֶ֣ם תִּקְנ֔וּ וּמִמִּשְׁפַּחְתָּם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עִמָּכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר הוֹלִ֖ידוּ בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם וְהָי֥וּ לָכֶ֖ם לַֽאֲחֻזָּֽה: כה:מו וְהִתְנַחַלְתֶּ֨ם אֹתָ֜ם לִבְנֵיכֶ֤ם אַחֲרֵיכֶם֙ לָרֶ֣שֶׁת אֲחֻזָּ֔ה לְעֹלָ֖ם בָּהֶ֣ם תַּעֲבֹ֑דוּ וּבְאַ֨חֵיכֶ֤ם בְּנֵֽי־ יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אִ֣ישׁ בְּאָחִ֔יו לֹא תִרְדֶּ֥ה ב֖וֹ בְּפָֽרֶךְ:
Lev 25:42 For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude.—25:43 You shall not rule over him ruthlessly; you shall fear your God. 25:44 Such male and female slaves as you may have—it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. 25:45 You may also buy them from among the children of aliens resident among you, or from their families that are among you, whom they begot in your land. These shall become your property: 25:46 you may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such you may treat as slaves. But as for your Israelite kinsmen, no one shall rule ruthlessly over the other.
The rabbis make no attempt to soften this. In fact, at least some voices in rabbinic literature interpret v. 46 not as permission to keep slaves forever but as a commandment to do so (b. Berachot 47b).
...אמר רב יהודה: כל המשחרר עבדו עובר בעשה, שנאמר: לעלם בהם תעבדו!
…Rav Yehudah said: “Whoever frees his slave has violated a positive commandment, as it says, “You shall work them forever.”
Nevertheless, the rabbis did take some small steps, by codifying a prohibition to humiliate non-Israelite slaves (b. Niddah 47a),
...אמר שמואל: לעולם בהם תעבודו - לעבודה נתתים ולא לבושה.
…Samuel said: “‘You shall work them forever’ – I gave them to you for work, but not for humiliation.”
Maimonides and the Problem of Non-Israelite Slaves: The Mishneh Torah Law Code
Moses Maimonides (1138-1205) is the first to take a big step towards a more humane treatment of gentile slaves. In the final section of his Laws of Slavery, Maimonides, expresses moral discomfort with the idea, endorsed by the Torah, that an Israelite master is to work his non-Israelite slaves with harsh labor (pharekh), which he defines as (Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Slaves” 1:6):
- No defined limit is set for the work.
- Useless work.
In both cases, the slave is not allowed a semblance of accomplishment that could salvage some sense of self-worth or empowerment as a human being. In effect, the master replaces God as the supreme object of the slave’s obedience and dependence. Thus, this may account for why the classical rabbis considered keeping a slave past the obligatory sabbatical limit tantamount to idolatry.
Focusing on the imposition of pharekh labor, Maimonides writes, (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Slaves 9:8):
- Best to be compassionate and not overburden slaves.
מֻתָּר לַעֲבֹד בְּעֶבֶד כְּנַעֲנִי בְּפָרֶךְ. וְאַף עַל פִּי שֶׁהַדִּין כָּךְ מִדַּת חֲסִידוּת וְדַרְכֵי חָכְמָה שֶׁיִּהְיֶה אָדָם רַחְמָן וְרוֹדֵף צֶדֶק וְלֹא יַכְבִּיד עֻלּוֹ עַל עַבְדּוֹ וְלֹא יָצֵר לוֹ.
It is permissible to have a Canaanite slave perform excruciating labor (pharekh). Although this is the law, the attribute of piety and the ways of wisdom is for a person to be compassionate and to pursue justice, not to excessively burden his slaves, nor cause them distress.
- Feed slaves well.
וְיַאֲכִילֵהוּ וְיַשְׁקֵהוּ מִכָּל מַאֲכָל וּמִכָּל מִשְׁתֶּה. חֲכָמִים הָרִאשׁוֹנִים הָיוּ נוֹתְנִין לָעֶבֶד מִכָּל תַּבְשִׁיל וְתַבְשִׁיל שֶׁהָיוּ אוֹכְלִין. וּמַקְדִּימִין מְזוֹן הַבְּהֵמוֹת וְהָעֲבָדִים לִסְעוּדַת עַצְמָן.
He should feed them and give them drink from all his available food and drink. This was the practice of the ancient Sages who would give their slaves from every dish of which they themselves would partake. And they would provide food for their animals and slaves before partaking of their own meals.
- A master to his slave has the power of God.
הֲרֵי הוּא אוֹמֵר (תהילים קכג-ב) "כְעֵינֵי עֲבָדִים אֶל יַד אֲדוֹנֵיהֶם כְּעֵינֵי שִׁפְחָה אֶל יַד גְּבִרְתָּהּ [כֵּ֣ן עֵ֭ינֵינוּ אֶל־ה' אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ עַד שֶׁיְּחָנֵּנוּ]".
And so, it is written Psalms 123:2: "As the eyes of slaves to their master's hand, and like the eyes of a maid-servant to her mistress' hand, [so are our eyes to the Lord our God awaiting his favor]."
- Do not verbally abuse a slave, but speak kindly.
וְכֵן לֹא יְבַזֵּהוּ בַּיָּד וְלֹא בִּדְבָרִים. לְעַבְדוּת מְסָרָן הַכָּתוּב לֹא לְבוּשָׁה. וְלֹא יַרְבֶּה עָלָיו צְעָקָה וְכַעַס אֶלָּא יְדַבֵּר עִמּוֹ בְּנַחַת וְיִשְׁמַע טַעֲנוֹתָיו. וְכֵן מְפֹרָשׁ בְּדַרְכֵי אִיּוֹב הַטּוֹבִים שֶׁהִשְׁתַּבֵּחַ בָּהֶן (איוב לא-יג) "אִם אֶמְאַס מִשְׁפַּט עַבְדִּי וַאֲמָתִי בְּרִבָם עִמָּדִי" (איוב לא-טו) "הֲלֹא בַבֶּטֶן עשֵֹׁנִי עָשָׂהוּ וַיְכֻנֶנּוּ בָּרֶחֶם אֶחָד."
Similarly, we should not embarrass a slave verbally or physically, for the Torah only contemplated work for them not humiliation. Nor should one excessively scream at or exhibit anger with them. Instead, one should speak to them gently, and listen to their complaints. This is explicitly stated with regard to the positive paths of Job for which he was praised Job 31:13, 15: "Have I ever shunned justice for my slave and maid-servant when they quarreled with me.... Did not He who made me in my mother’s belly make him? Did not One form us both in the womb?"
- The children of Abraham are kind and not cruel like idolaters.
וְאֵין הָאַכְזָרִיּוּת וְהָעַזּוּת מְצוּיָה אֶלָּא בְּעַכּוּ''ם עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה אֲבָל זַרְעוֹ שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ וְהֵם יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁהִשְׁפִּיעַ לָהֶם הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא טוֹבַת הַתּוֹרָה וְצִוָּה אוֹתָם בְּ"חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים צַדִּיקִים" רַחְמָנִים הֵם עַל הַכּל.
Cruelty and arrogance are common only among idolaters. By contrast, the descendants of Abraham our patriarch, i.e. Israel on whom the Holy One, blessed be He, endowed the goodness of the Torah and commanded to observe “righteous statutes and judgments,” (Deut 4:8) are compassionate to all.
- God is merciful so we should be as well.
וְכֵן בְּמִדּוֹתָיו שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא שֶּׁצִּוָּנוּ לְהִדָּמוֹת בָּהֶם הוּא אוֹמֵר (תהילים קמה-ט) "וְרַחֲמָיו עַל כָּל מַעֲשָׂיו . וְכָל הַמְרַחֵם מְרַחֲמִין עָלָיו שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים יג:יח) "וְנָתַן לְךָ רַחֲמִים וְרִחַמְךָ וְהִרְבֶּךָ":
And similarly, with regard to the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He, which He commanded us to imitate, it is written Psalms 145:9: "His mercy is upon all of His works." And whoever shows mercy to others will have mercy shown to him, as implied by Deuteronomy 13:18: "He will show you compassion, and in His compassion merciful increase you."
This codified recommendation represents the high water mark of Jewish law in expressing noble and equitable ideals. It also presents an exquisite weave of biblical texts, philosophy, theology, and law. This emerges most clearly if we follow the logic of four verses Maimonides cites and how he integrates them into a kind of philosophically theological mini-treatise that touches on the nature of man, his relationship with the divine, the nature of God, and imitatio dei.
A Closer Look at the Verses Maimonides Quotes
1. Kindness (Without) obligation; Psalms 123:2
הִנֵּ֨ה כְעֵינֵ֢י עֲבָדִ֡ים אֶל יַ֤ד אֲֽדוֹנֵיהֶ֗ם כְּעֵינֵ֣י שִׁפְחָה֘ אֶל יַ֪ד גְּבִ֫רְתָּ֥הּ כֵּ֣ן עֵ֭ינֵינוּ אֶל יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ עַ֗ד שֶׁיְּחָנֵּֽנוּ:
As the eyes of slaves to their master's hand, and like the eyes of a maid-servant to her mistress' hand, so are our eyes to YHWH our God awaiting his favor.
By ending with God’s “favor (ח-נ-נ),” which connotes kindness without obligation, we are reminded that the non-Jewish slave has no legal grounds for grievance against pharekh labor. Nevertheless, Maimonides uses this text to prioritize the slave’s needs—like quality food at proper meal times—over the master’s needs, a level of compassion that would surely undermine the utilitarian basis for slave ownership.
2. All Are Formed in the Womb: Job 31:13, 15
אִם־אֶמְאַ֗ס מִשְׁפַּ֣ט עַ֭בְדִּי וַאֲמָתִ֑י בְּ֝רִבָ֗ם עִמָּדִֽי... הֲֽלֹא־בַ֭בֶּטֶן עֹשֵׂ֣נִי עָשָׂ֑הוּ וַ֝יְכֻנֶ֗נּוּ בָּרֶ֥חֶם אֶחָֽד:
Have I ever shunned justice for my slave and maid-servant when they quarreled with me.... Did not He who made me in my mother’s belly make him? Did not One form us both in the womb?
While the previous verse called for supererogatory conduct, this verse demands abiding by the legal duties (משפט) a master owes his slave because, as Job says, both he and the slaves share the same humanity;  all are formed in the womb, and every individual emerges from the same physiological processes.
3. A Legal Claim: Deuteronomy 4:8
וּמִי֙ גּ֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל אֲשֶׁר־ל֛וֹ חֻקִּ֥ים וּמִשְׁפָּטִ֖ים צַדִּיקִ֑ם כְּכֹל֙ הַתּוֹרָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּֽוֹם:
Or what great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Teaching that I set before you this day?
Building off the reference to משפט in Job, here Maimonides raises the stakes for the normative value of his advised treatment of slaves by transforming it into a bedrock of the entire Jewish legal framework.
4. Imitatio Dei : Psalms 145:9 and Deuteronomy 13:18
טוֹב יְ-הֹוָ֥ה לַכֹּ֑ל וְ֝רַחֲמָ֗יו עַל כָּל מַעֲשָֽׂיו:
YHWH is good to all, and His mercy is upon all His works.
וְנָֽתַן לְךָ֤ רַחֲמִים֙ וְרִֽחַמְךָ֣ וְהִרְבֶּ֔ךָ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַאֲבֹתֶֽיךָ:
And he will show you compassion, and in His compassion increase you as He promised your fathers on oath.
The last verses cited concentrate on the trait of “mercy,” which Maimonides uses to underline the moral of gravity of the benevolent treatment of slaves, regardless of their origins, by raising it to the level of imitatio dei.
In fact, Maimonides may be implying even more than this.
All Humans Are Created Equal: Maimonides in Guide of the Perplexed
Maimonides’ Guide offers a complementary explanation of what it means to be human that works in tandem with the legal case he builds about slavery in the Mishneh Torah. According to Maimonides any differences between individual members of a species are accidental, attributable only to the fickle nature of matter, or their physical constituents, since
“[T]here in no way exists a relation of superiority and inferiority between individuals conforming to the course of nature except that which follows necessarily from the differences in the disposition of the various kinds of matter…”
For Maimonides, material success or physical prowess do not in any way indicate superiority over others since they are simply arbitrary consequences of the natural world that do not constitute an “increment in substance.” He then cites, among other verses, the same verse he uses to end the halakha about non-Jewish slaves, Ps. 145:9, to substantiate the principle of divine “beneficence with regard to His creatures…in that He makes individuals of the same species equal at their creation.”
No verse better captures what is perceived as the modern liberal ideal of “all men are created equal” than Psalms 145:9 in Maimonides’ reading. It elevates the equalization of another human being to a metaphysical standard of imitatio dei, and one which emulates the specific divine trait that grounds all of human existence in the “mercy” that establishes a common human form and that is blind to contingent differences.
Conclusion: Slavery Is Contra Deum
Ps. 145:9 then delivers the philosophical and theological coup de grace to slavery. If God’s “beneficence” is manifest in the equality inherent in human beings “at their creation,” then to exert mastery over another human being subverts God’s governance and constitutes an act contra deum rather than imitatio dei.
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Prof. James A. Diamond is the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo and former director of the university’s Friedberg Genizah Project. He holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies and Medieval Jewish Thought from the University of Toronto, and an LL.M. from New York University’s Law School. He is the author of Maimonides and the Hermeneutics of Concealment, Converts, Heretics and Lepers: Maimonides and the Outsider and, Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon.
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