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Judaism and slavery

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Judaism has been intertwined with slavery, both as an ideological and conceptual basis. Slavery was customary in antiquity and during the Middle Ages, and the slave trade was taken for granted by all groups. A common misnomer is to equate the African slave trade with these earlier concepts that were often more like indentured servitude. Judaism (through the Bible or Rabbinical Rules) included rules that authorized and regulated conditions and treatments of slaves, including the required release of male Hebrew slaves after seven years with enough funds to get started in life. This was an unusual improvement over other regional cultures at the time.

Classical regulations

Many current forms of Judaism believe in an oral law, handed down from Moses verbally, and not formally codified or written until the first few centuries AD, when it became the Mishnah. A few centuries after the creation of the Mishnah, it was combined with commentary and analysis of itself to form the Talmud; this combined form has several things to say about slavery. The first few centuries also produced commentaries on the Torah itself (the Midrash halakha) which were later given the status of official interpretations.

The slave trade

The fear of apostasy was behind most of the classical rabbis' regulation of the slave trade. Despite the Bible allowing Israelite slaves to be owned by non-Israelite residents[1][2], the Talmud prohibited sale of Jewish slaves to non-Jews[3]; although the Samaritans believed themselves to be the original Israelites, the rabbis counted them as non-Jews in regard to this regulation[4]. Nevertheless, short temporary loans of slaves were potentially[clarification needed] permitted[5]; the Talmud argued that the sale of Jewish slaves to a convert or to a non-Jew, even to a non-Jewish temple, was to be upheld, but all Jews would then be required to buy the slave's freedom, whatever the price[4][6]. Trade with Tyre, which had formally been significant[7], was now to be restricted to the slave trade, and only then for the purpose of removing slaves from non-Jewish religion[8]

Other types of trade were also discouraged, including men selling themselves to women[4][6]. The Talmud instructed that treating slaves as security for a loan, while not itself forbidden, must immediately result in the manumission of the slave in question[9]. Religious racism by the classical rabbis meant that they completely forbade the sale or transfer of Canaanite slaves out from Palestine to elsewhere[10].

Female slaves

The biblical ability for fathers to sell their daughters into slavery[11] was restricted by the classical sources, to extend only to pre-pubescent daughters, and only then as a last resort before the father had to sell himself[4]; the sale was only regarded as complete when payment was received, or when a deed (referred to as the shetar) was written in the name of the daughter's father. Although the biblical text clearly differentiates between selling daughters with the intention of their marriage, and other forms of slavery, the Talmud argued that when a pre-pubescent girl was sold into slavery, their master had to marry her, or marry her to his son, when she started puberty; if the master failed to marry the girl, or marry her to his son, she was to be freed[4].

The classical rabbis instructed that masters could never marry female slaves - they would have to be manumitted first[12]; similarly, they ruled that male slaves could not be allowed to marry Jewish women[13]. By contrast, masters were given the right to the services of the wives of any of their slaves, if the enslaved husband had been sold into slavery by a court of law[14]. Unlike the biblical instruction to sell thieves into slavery (if they were caught during daylight, and couldn't repay the theft), the rabbis ordered that female Israelites could never be sold into slavery for this reason[4].


Manumission of a Canaanite slave was seen as a religious conversion, and involved a second baptism. The Talmud made many rulings which had the effect of making manumission easier and more likely. The costly giving of gifts, on the occasion of manumission, is only biblically mandated in connection with automatic 7th-year manumission[15]; the Talmud therefore restricted its compulsory performance to this circumstance only[4]

In the biblical regulation, the price for buying one's freedom was set as the total fee for a hired servant, over the outstanding period of service[16], but the classical rabbis changed the price to be the original price for which the servant was purchased, pro-rated for the amount of service already worked[4][6]; if the servant has become weak or sickly, and therefore worth less as a product, the price of freedom was to be reduced further, and it could never be increased for an increase in the servant's strength or skills[4][6].

Voluntary manumission

Voluntary manumission is not mentioned by the bible, but the Talmud allowed masters to free slaves voluntarily by a number of mechanisms. Such manumission was to be formally executed by a written deed (the shetar shihrur), which must sever the dependency and servitude completely; if any of the master's rights were reserved, or the deed was written in the future tense, it would be invalid and ineffectual[6]. These deeds would become effective as soon as it was transferred to a 3rd party, or delivered to the slave; however, if the master had sent the deed to the slave, it would become void if the master died before the slave received it[6]. Possession of the deed was counted as prima facie proof of manumission, but the former slave was not allowed to work on land gifted to him by his former master, unless witnesses were able to verify it[clarification needed][6]. Despite the general disregard for non-Jewish laws, writs of manumission written by non-Jewish magistrates were acknowledged to retain their validity under Jewish law[17].

Although, in their view, slave masters had previously had the right to revoke voluntary manumission, the classical rabbis instructed that it should no longer be permitted[18]. Indeed, if the master merely says that he has freed his slave, the rabbis would not even allow him to repudiate his statement, instead compelling such a master to create a writ of manumission[19]; even if the slave denies that he has been given this writ, he is still considered freed[19]. Other symbolic acts were also regarded as freeing the slave: namely, if the master put phylacteries on the slave, gave him a free woman for a wife, or made him publicly read three or more verses from the Torah; if these acts were committed, it was compulsory for the master to give the former slave a writ of manumission[6]

Working conditions

The Bible's insistence that Israelite slaves should be treated more gently[20][21][22] was expanded by the Talmud to insist that Jewish slaves should be granted similar food, drink, lodging, and bedding, to that which their master would grant to himself.[4] Furthermore, the Talmud instructed that servants were not to be unreasonably penalised for being absent from work due to sickness. The biblical 7th-year manumission was still to occur after the slave had been enslaved for six years; extra enslavement couldn't be tacked on to make up for the absence, unless the slave had been absent for more than a total of four years, and if the illness didn't prevent light work (such as needlework), then the slave could be ill for all six years without having to repay the time.[4][6]

The vague[4][23] biblical instruction to avenge slaves that had died, from punishment by their masters,[24] became regarded as an instruction to view such events as murder, with masters guilty of such crime being beheaded.[25] On the other hand, the protection given to fugitive slaves was lessened by the classical rabbis; fugitive Israelite slaves were now compelled to buy their freedom, and if they were recaptured, then the time they had been absent was added on as extra before the usual 7th-year manumission could take effect.[4][6]

However, slaves were often treated as property; for example, they were not allowed to be counted towards the quorum, equal to 10 men, needed for publish worship.[26] Sadducees went as far as to hold slave owners responsible for any damage caused by their slaves;[27] by contrast Pharisees acknowledged that slaves had independent thought.[28] Slaves were unable to own property; anything found by them, or given to them, was regarded as the possession of their masters.[4][6] Nevertheless, the Talmud instructs that adult slaves were not to be circumcised against their will, and they were not to be pressured, for more than a year, into agreeing to circumcision.[4][6]

Later regulations

Several prominent Jewish writers of the Middle Ages took offense at the idea that Jews might be enslaved; Joseph Caro and Maimonides both argue that calling a Jew slave was so offensive that it should be punished by excommunication[29][30]. However, they did not condemn enslavement of non-Jews. Indeed, they argued that the biblical rule that slaves should be freed, if they had been harmed to the extent that their injury was covered by the lex talionis[31], should actually only apply to slaves who had converted to Judaism[4]; additionally, Maimonides argued that this manumission was really punishment of the owner, and therefore that it could only be imposed by a court, and required evidence from witnesses[4]

Although conversion to Judaism was a possibility for slaves, these writers discouraged it, on the basis that Jews were not permitted (in their time) to proselytise[4]; slave owners could enter into special contracts, by which they agree not to convert their slaves[4]. Furthermore, to convert a slave into Judaism without the owner's permission was seen as causing harm to the owner, on the basis that it would rob the owner of the slave's ability to work during the Sabbath, and would prevent them from selling the slave to a non-Jews[4].

In Maimonides' opinion, manumission could not even be carried out by wills; this, however, was a technicality, as Maimonides still permits heirs themselves to be compelled by a will to carry out manumission of the deceased owner's slaves[4][6].

At the same time, Maimonides and other halachic authorities forbade of strongly discouraged any unethical treatment of slaves. According to the traditional Jewish law, a slave is more like an indentured servant, who has rights and should be treated almost like a member of the owner's family. Maimonides wrote that, regardless whether a slave is Jewish or not, "The way of the pious and the wise is to be compassionate and to pursue justice, not to overburden or oppress a slave, and to provide them from every dish and every drink. The early sages would give their slaves from every dish on their table. They would feed their servants before sitting to their own meals... Slaves may not be maltreated of offended - the law destined them for service, not for humiliation. Do not shout at them or be angry with them, but hear them out". In another context, Maimonides wrote that all the laws of slavery are "mercy, compassion and forbearance".[32][33]"

Liberation of Jewish slaves

The general liberation of slaves had little importance to Jews until the Hellenic era.[4][6] Many Jews were taken to Rome as prisoners of war, but Julius Caesar, who was fairly friendly towards Judaism, appears to have freed most of them.[4][34][35] Josephus, himself a former first century slave, remarks that the faithfulness of Jewish slaves, and former slaves, was appreciated by their owners[36]; this may have been one of the main reasons for freeing them.[4]

Jewish communities customarily ransomed Jewish captives according to a Judaic mitzvah regarding the redemption of captives (pidyon shvuyim).[37] Knowing this, slave traders preyed on Jews.[38] In his A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson writes:

Jews were particularly valued as captives since it was believed, usually correctly, that even if they themselves poor, a Jewish community somewhere could be persuaded to ransom them. If a Jew was taken by Turks from a Christian ship, his release was usually negotiated from Constantinople. In Venice, the Jewish Levantine and Portuguese congregations set up a special organization for redeeming Jewish captives taken by Christians from Turkish ships, Jewish merchants paid a special tax on all goods to support it, which acted as a form of insurance since they were likely victims.[39]

Jews in the slave trade

According to Philo, the Essenes denounced slavery as an abomination[40] (although Philo's authorship of this comment is disputed); Philo also states that they argued slavery to represent a wicked violation of nature, which was opposed to the equality in which mankind was created[41]. However, more mainstream forms of first century Judaism didn't exhibit such qualms about slavery, and ever since the 2nd century expulsion of Jews from Judea, wealthy Jews have owned non-Jewish slaves, wherever it was legal to do so[4]; nevertheless, manumissions were approved by Jewish religious officials on the slightest of pretexts, and court cases concerning manumission were nearly always decided in favour of freedom, whenever there was uncertainty towards the facts[6][42].

The means by which Jews earned their livelihoods were largely determined by the restrictions placed on them by the authorities. In 492 Pope Gelasius permitted Jews to introduce slaves from Gaul into Italy, on the condition that they were non-Christian.[43]

The first prohibition of Jews owning Christian slaves was made by Constantine I in the fourth century. The Third Council of Orléans in 538 repeated the prohibition for Gaul. The prohibition was repeated by subsequent councils - Fourth Council of Orléans (541), Paris (633), Fourth Council of Toledo (633), the Synod of Szabolcs (1092) extended the prohibition to Hungary, Ghent (1112), Narbonne (1227), Béziers (1246).

After this time the need of such a prohibition seems to have disappeared. Thus, at Marseilles in the 13th century, there were only two Jewish slave-traders, as opposed to seven Christians.[44] It was part of St. Benedict's rule that Christian slaves were not to serve Jews.[45]

Ibn Khordadhbeh in the 9th century describes two routes by which Jewish slave-dealers carried slaves from West to East and from East to West.[43] According to Abraham ibn Yakub, Byzantine Jewish merchants bought Slavs from Prague to be sold as slaves. Louis The Fair granted charters to Jews visiting his kingdom, permitting them to trade in slaves, provided the latter had not been baptized. Agobard claimed that the Jews did not abide to the agreement and kept Christians as slaves, citing the instance of a Christian refugee from Cordova who declared that his coreligionists were frequently sold, as he had been, to the Moors. Many, indeed, of the Spanish Jews owed their fortune to the trade in Slavonian slaves brought from Andalusia.[46] Similarly, the Jews of Verdun, about the year 949, purchased slaves in their neighborhood and sold them in Spain.[47]

Despite the ruling, many Christians trafficked with Jews in slaves, and the Church dignitaries of Bavaria even recognized this traffic by insisting on Jews and other merchants paying a toll for slaves.[48]

Allegations and refutations

Allegations that Jews dominated the slave trade in Medieval Europe, Africa, and/or the Americas often appear in antisemitic discourse as a part of "Jewish domination" or "Jewish persecution" antisemitic canard. It was alleged that Jews controlled trade and finance and hatched plots "to enslave, convert, or sell non-Jews". Such allegations are denied by David Brion Davis, who argues that Jews had no major or continuing impact on the history of New World slavery.[49]

One of the latest examples of such accusations are made in the Nation of Islam's 1991 book The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews.[50] These charges were widely refuted by scholars.[51][52]

According to a review in The Journal of American History of Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight by Eli Faber and Jews and the American Slave Trade by Saul S. Friedman:

Eli Faber takes a quantitative approach to Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade in Britain's Atlantic empire, starting with the arrival of Sephardic Jews in the London resettlement of the 1650s, calculating their participation in the trading companies of the late seventeenth century, and then using a solid range of standard quantitative sources (Naval Office shipping lists, censuses, tax records, and so on) to assess the prominence in slaving and slave owning of merchants and planters identifiable as Jewish in Barbados, Jamaica, New York, Newport, Philadelphia, Charleston, and all other smaller English colonial ports. He follows this strategy in the Caribbean through the 1820s; his North American coverage effectively terminates in 1775. Faber acknowledges the few merchants of Jewish background locally prominent in slaving during the second half of the eighteenth century but otherwise confirms the small-to-minuscule size of colonial Jewish communities of any sort and shows them engaged in slaving and slave holding only to degrees indistinguishable from those of their English competitors.[53]

While acknowledging Jewish participation in slavery, scholars reject allegations that Jews dominated the slave trade in Medieval Europe, Africa, and/or the Americas; Jews were no more or less involved in the slave trade than any other ethno-cultural or national group.[51][52]

See also


  1. Leviticus 25:44-46
  2. Leviticus 19:33-34
  3. Gittin, 4:6
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 4.14 4.15 4.16 4.17 4.18 4.19 4.20 4.21 4.22 4.23 4.24 Jewish Encyclopedia (1901), article on Slaves and Slavery
  5. Gittin, 46b
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 6.14 Maimonides, Mishneh Torah
  7. Ezekiel 27:17
  8. Jewish Encyclopedia (1901), article on Fairs
  9. Gittin, 42a
  10. Gittin 4:6
  11. Exodus 21:7-11
  12. Gittin, 40a
  13. Gittin 4:5
  14. Kiddushin 22a
  15. Exodus 21:5-6
  16. Leviticus 25:47-55
  17. Gittin 1:4 (Tosefta)
  18. Gittin 1:6
  19. 19.0 19.1 Gittin 40b
  20. Leviticus 25:43
  21. Leviticus 25:53
  22. Leviticus 25:39
  23. "Avenger of Blood", Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901.
  24. Exodus 21:20-21
  25. Mekhilta, Mishpatim 7
  26. Berakot 47
  27. Yadayim 4:7
  28. Yadayim 4:7
  29. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, 6:14
  30. Joseph Caro, Shulkhan Arukh, Yoreah De'ah 334
  31. Exodus 21:26-27
  32. Encyclopedia Judaica, 2007, vol. 18, p. 670
  34. Tacitus, Annals, 2:85
  35. Suetonius, Tiberius, 36
  36. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews
  37. Ransoming Captive Jews. An important commandment calls for the redemption of Jewish prisoners, but how far should this mitzvah be taken? by Rabbi David Golinkin
  38. Jewish involvement in the slave trade. From a post to Kulanu's listserv by Anne Herschman December 2001
  39. Paul Johnson: A History of the Jews. 1987. p.240
  40. Philo, Quod Omnis Probus Liber, 12+
  41. Philo, On the contemplative life
  42. The Minor Tractates, Abadim 9:6
  43. 43.0 43.1 Slave Trade. Jewish Encyclopedia
  44. "R. E. J." xvi.
  45. Aronius, "Regesten", No. 114
  46. Gra:tz, "Gesch." vii.
  47. Aronius, "Regesten", No. 127
  48. ib. No. 122
  49. citation needed
  50. Anti-Semitism. Farrakhan In His Own Words. On Jewish Involvement in the Slave Trade and Nation of Islam. Jew-Hatred as History. ADL December 31, 2001
  51. 51.0 51.1 Reviewed Work: Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight by Eli Faber by Paul Finkelman. Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 17, No. 1/2 (2002), pp. 125-128
  52. 52.0 52.1 Refutations of charges of Jewish prominence in slave trade:
    • "Nor were Jews prominent in the slave trade." - Marvin Perry, Frederick M. Schweitzer: Antisemitism: Myth and Hate from Antiquity to the Present. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. ISBN 0312165617. p.245
    • "In no period did Jews play a leading role as financiers, shipowners, or factors in the transatlantic or Caribbean slave trades. They possessed far fewer slaves than non-Jews in every British territory in North America and the Caribbean. Even when Jews in a handful of places owned slaves in proportions slightly above their representation among a town's families, such cases do not come close to corroborating the assertions of The Secret Relationship." - Wim Klooster (University of Southern Maine): Review of Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight. By Eli Faber. Reappraisals in Jewish Social and Intellectual History. William and Mary Quarterly Review of Books. Volume LVII, Number 1. by Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. 2000
    • "Medieval Christians greatly exaggerated the supposed Jewish control over trade and finance and also became obsessed with alleged Jewish plots to enslave, convert, or sell non-Jews... Most European Jews lived in poor communities on the margins of Christian society; they continued to suffer most of the legal disabilities associated with slavery. ... Whatever Jewish refugees from Brazil may have contributed to the northwestward expansion of sugar and slaves, it is clear that Jews had no major or continuing impact on the history of New World slavery." - Professor David Brion Davis of Yale University in Slavery and Human Progress (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1984), p.89 (cited in Shofar FTP Archive File: orgs/american/
    • "The Jews of Newport seem not to have pursued the [slave trading] business consistently ... [When] we compare the number of vessels employed in the traffic by all merchants with the number sent to the African coast by Jewish traders ... we can see that the Jewish participation was minimal. It may be safely assumed that over a period of years American Jewish businessmen were accountable for considerably less than two percent of the slave imports into the West Indies" - Professor Jacob R. Marcus of Hebrew Union College in The Colonial American Jew (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1970), Vol. 2, pp. 702-703 (cited in Shofar FTP Archive File: orgs/american/
    • "None of the major slavetraders was Jewish, nor did Jews constitute a large proportion in any particular community. ... probably all of the Jewish slavetraders in all of the Southern cities and towns combined did not buy and sell as many slaves as did the firm of Franklin and Armfield, the largest Negro traders in the South." - Rabbi Bertram W. Korn, Jews and Negro Slavery in the Old South, 1789-1865, in The Jewish Experience in America, ed. Abraham J. Karp (Waltham, Massachusetts: American Jewish Historical Society, 1969), Vol. 3, pp. 197-198 (cited in Shofar FTP Archive File: orgs/american/
    • "[There were] Jewish owners of plantations, but altogether they constituted only a tiny proportion of the Southerners whose habits, opinions, and status were to become decisive for the entire section, and eventually for the entire country. ... [Only one Jew] tried his hand as a plantation overseer even if only for a brief time." - Rabbi Bertram W. Korn, Jews and Negro Slavery in the Old South, 1789-1865, in The Jewish Experience in America, ed. Abraham J. Karp (Waltham, Massachusetts: American Jewish Historical Society, 1969), Vol. 3, p. 180. (cited in Shofar FTP Archive File: orgs/american/
  53. Book Review of Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight by Eli Faber and Jews and the American Slave Trade by Saul S. Friedman The Journal of American History Vol 86. No. 3 December 1999

Further reading

  • Eli Faber: Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight. New York: New York University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8147-2638-0
  • Saul S. Friedman: Jews and the American Slave Trade. (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1998. ISBN 1-56000-337-5)
  • Roth, Norman: Medieval Jewish Civilzation
  • Tertullianus, Qunitus Codex Agobardinus

External links

This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the publicРабство в иудаизме

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