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Why does the Torah allow slavery?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg


Library » Jewish Identity » Love thy Neighbor | Subscribe | What is RSS?


Preface: words are loaded terms that come with preconceived images. The English word slave has a very denigrating connotation and usually evokes the image of an overworked, underpaid, malnourished, and abused worker. In the Torah, however, the word Eved (commonly translated as slave) simply connotes work or worker1, and the Torah’s Eved is more of a "New England Steward" than a "Southern Slave". Thus, henceforth when speaking of the Torah concept I will refer to him as Eved.

According to the laws of the Torah, there are two possible ways for a Jew to be sold as an Eved:

1) If he stole and does not have the means to reimburse the victim. In this case the thief is sold by the courts and the money goes to pay for the stolen items.

The Torah is Torat Chesed and everything in Torah is kindness. In today's world, if someone steals he/she is thrown into prison. Man was created and put onto this world to accomplish a mission, through doing Torah and Mitzvot a Jew has the ability to transform this physical world into a dwelling place for the Almighty. Incarcerating someone is robbing him/her of the ability to be a productive Jew and human being. There is no crueler punishment than this. A person's free-choice and creativity is taken away by caging him/her like an animal. This is besides the fact that in many cases incarceration leads to the destruction of entire families. Innocent children and spouses are subjected to months and years of agony and separation -- what did they do to deserve this fate?

the slave must be fed the same foods and wines that the master enjoys and our sages tell us that if there is only one pillow in the house the master must let the slave sleep on it!
And don't tell me that it is necessary to have a cruel punishment in order to serve as a deterrent for other criminals, for even you realize that not every deterrent is justifiable. For example, executing or incarcerating a criminal’s first-born or amputating a limb from a thief would also serve as a phenomenal deterrent - but everyone realizes that such a punishment is unjustifiable and completely inhumane!

Instead the Torah punishes a thief by making him pay double the amount that he stole, and if he cannot pay even the principle - he must be given the opportunity to earn the means to repay. The Torah commands the master to treat his Eved with dignity and respect -- the Eved must be fed the same foods and wines that the master enjoys and our sages tell us that if there is only one pillow in the house the master must let the Eved sleep on it!

Additionally, the master is also responsible to take in the wife and children of his Eved and feed them as long as the Eved is working for him.

Many people today are complaining about the fact that jails do not properly rehabilitate criminals and prepare them to rejoin the real world. Is there a better way to rehabilitate a criminal than offering him a respectful job (a master is not allowed to overwork his Eved) in a wholesome environment?! Or would you rather lock up the person for a few years together with other criminals?

2) A person is also allowed to sell himself as an Eved if he is poverty-stricken and desperate.

I think that the benefits of this (especially in ancient times when there weren't government funded welfare programs) are quite obvious.


  • 1. The Torah adds a suffix (such as Avodas "Perech") when it wishes to connote "backbreaking" labor.
TAGS: slavery, slave, slaves


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Mitzvot » Love thy Neighbor

Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Plural form of Mitzvah. Commandments of G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.