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Jewish Concepts: Slavery

The Hebrew term for slave, eved, is a direct derivation from the Hebrew verb la'avöd ("to work"), thus, the slave in Jewish law is really only a worker or servant. The eved differs from the hired worker (sakhir) in three respects: he receives no wages for his work; he is a member of his master's household; and, his master exercises patria potestas over him - for example, the master may choose a wife for the slave and retains ownership of her and he has proprietary rights in him.

- In Biblical Law
- In Talmudic Law
- Post-Talmudic Law

In Biblical Law


Hebrew Slaves:

A Hebrew could not become a slave unless by order of the court (for which see under Criminals, below) or by giving himself voluntarily into bondage (for which see under Paupers, etc., below; Yad, Avadim 1:1). Other slaves were always recruited from outside the nation. It has been opined that the epithet "'eved 'ivri," and the laws relating to Hebrew slaves (Ex. 21:2–6) would apply also to such non-Jewish slaves as were born into the household as the offspring of alien slaves (see, for instance, Saalschuetz, Das Mosaische Recht (1853), ch. 101).

Alien Slaves:

"Of the nations that are round about you, of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondwomen. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them may ye buy and of their families that are with you which they have begotten in your land; and they may be your possession" (Lev. 25:44–45).

Paupers & Debtors:

A debtor who is unable to pay his debts may give himself in bondage to his creditor (cf. Lev. 25:39; Prov. 22:7; see also II Kings 4:1; Isa. 50:1; Amos 2:6, 8:6; Neh. 5:5). According to other opinions, the verse in Leviticus 25:39 deals with an ordinary pauper who sold himself and the debtor's bondage was against strict law, although it happened from time to time in practice (see Elon, Ḥerut ha-Perat, 1–10, and n. 9; *Execution (Civil)).


A thief who is unable to make restitution is "sold for his theft" (Ex. 22:2).

Prisoners of War:

It would appear from Numbers 31:26–27 and Deuteronomy 20:10–11 that prisoners of war could be, and were, taken into bondage, but it has been contended that no prisoners of war were ever taken into private slavery (Kaufmann, Y., Toledot 1 (1937), 651).

Female Slaves:

A father may sell his daughter into slavery (Ex. 21:7), usually apparently for household duties and eventual marriage (Ex. 21:7–11).

Children of Slaves:

The Bible mentions "the son of thy handmaid" (Ex. 23:12), "he that is born in the house" (Gen. 17:12, 13; Lev. 22:11), indicating that the status of slaves devolved upon their children.


Hebrew Slaves:

Hebrew slaves serve six years only and must be freed in the seventh (Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12). "And when thou lettest him go free from thee, thou shalt not let him go empty; thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy threshing floor, and out of thy wine-press; of that wherewith the Lord thy God hath blessed thee" (Deut. 15:13–14; and see *Ha'anakah ). This short period of bondage conditioned the price of slaves: there is some indication of their market value in the provision that if an ox killed a slave, the owner of the ox must pay 30 shekels of silver to the master of the slave (Ex. 21:32). Whatever the master may have paid for the slave, "It shall not seem hard unto thee, when thou lettest him go free from thee; for to the double of the hire of a hireling hath he served thee six years" (Deut. 15:18). If the slave refuses to go free and wishes to stay on in his master's service, then the master pierces his ear with an awl and in this way the slave is bonded to him forever (Ex. 21:5–6; Deut. 15:16–17). If a Hebrew slave has been sold to an alien, he must be redeemed at once; he then enters into the redeemer's service, which terminates with the jubilee year (Lev. 25:47–54).

Alien Slaves:

Alien slaves serve in perpetuity: "Ye may make them an inheritance for your children after you, to hold for a possession, of them ye may take your bondmen forever" (Lev. 25:46). The same rule would appear to apply to prisoners of war.


Whatever the amount of debt for which the debtor sold himself he must be freed on the first ensuing jubilee year (Lev. 25:40). The same is true of a pauper. In that year he regains his lands and holdings (Lev. 25:10, 13) and can go back to his family and ancestral home (Lev. 25:41).

Female Slaves:

Female slaves sold into bondage by their fathers go free if their master's sons deny them their matrimonial rights (Ex. 21:11).

Slaves must be released for grievous bodily injury caused to them: the master must let the slave go free "for his eye's sake" or "for his tooth's sake" (Ex. 21:26–27), if either be gouged out or knocked out by him.


Slaves are members of the master's household, and as such enjoy the benefit and are liable to the duty of keeping the Sabbath (Ex. 20:10, 23:12; Deut. 5:14–15) and holidays (Deut. 16:11–14, 12:18). They must be circumcised (Gen. 17:12–13); partake of Passover sacrifices when circumcised (Ex. 12:44), as distinguished from resident hirelings (Ex. 12:45); and may inherit the master's estate where there is no direct issue (Gen. 15:3) or perhaps even where there is (Prov. 17:2). Although slaves are the master's property (Lev. 22:11, etc.), they may acquire and hold property of their own; a slave who "prospers," i.e., can afford it, may redeem himself (Lev. 25:29; instances of property held by slaves are to be found in II Sam. 9:10; 16:4; 19:18, 30; cf. I Sam. 9:8). The killing of a slave is punishable in the same way as that of any freeman, even if the act is committed by the master (Ex. 21:20).


In the case of a pauper who sells himself into slavery or a man who is redeemed from bondage to a stranger, no distinction may be made between a slave and a hired laborer (Lev. 25:40, 53). A master may not rule ruthlessly over these slaves (Lev. 25:43, 46, 53) nor ill-treat them (Deut. 23:17); Ben Sira adds: "If thou treat him ill and he proceeds to run away, in what way shalt thou find him?" (Ecclus. 33:31). A master may chastise his slave to a reasonable extent (Ecclus. 33:26) but not wound him (Ex. 21:26–27). The workload of a slave should never exceed his physical strength (Ecclus. 33:28–29). A fugitive slave must not be turned over to his master but given refuge (Deut. 23:16). There was no similar rule prevailing in neighboring countries (cf. I Kings 2:39–40). The *abduction of a person for sale into bondage is a capital offense (Ex. 21:16; Deut. 24:7). In general, "thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt" (Deut. 15:15), and that you are now the slaves of God Who redeemed you from Egypt (Lev. 25:55).


From a report in Jeremiah (34:8–16) it would appear that the laws relating to the release of Hebrew slaves after six years' service were not implemented in practice: King Zedekiah had to make a "covenant" with the people that every man should let his slaves go free "at the end of seven years"; but hardly had the people released their slaves than they turned round and brought them back into subjection. In retribution for the failure to grant liberty to slaves, God would proclaim liberty "unto the sword, unto the pestilence, and unto the famine"; "and I will make you a horror unto all the kingdoms of the earth" (Jer. 34:17). According to Ezra (2:64–65) and Nehemiah (7:67), it would appear that in addition to the 42,360 people returning from Babylonia there were 7,337 slaves, male and female, and another 245 (or 200) musicians.

In Talmudic Law

Opinions are divided among modern scholars whether and to what extent slavery was practiced in post-biblical times. There is repeated mention of Tebi, the slave of Rabban Gamaliel (Ber. 2:7; Pes. 7:2; Suk. 2:1), and a freed slave formerly belonging to Tobiah the physician (RH 1:7) is also mentioned. In amoraic sources there are reports of cases of men selling themselves into slavery as gladiators (Git. 46b–47a), apparently from dire necessity (TJ, Git. 4:9). There is a strong talmudic tradition to the effect that all bondage of Hebrew slaves had ceased with the cessation of jubilee years (Git. 65a; Kid. 69a; Ar. 29a; Maim. Yad, Avadim 2:10), which would mean that from the period of the Second Temple the practice of slavery was at any rate confined to non-Hebrew slaves.


Hebrew Slaves:

The term eved Ivri is reserved for, and identified with, a thief unable to make restitution who is sold for his theft or a pauper who sold himself into bondage (Kid. 14b; Yad, Avadim 1:1). This implies that a Hebrew slave may not be resold. The earlier Mishnah provides that a Hebrew slave may be acquired by the payment of money or the delivery of a deed of sale (Kid. 1:2).

Female Hebrew Slaves:

Many provisions applying to slaves in general do not apply to female slaves. Thus, a woman may not sell herself into slavery (Mekh. Nezikin 3; Yad, Avadim 1:2), nor is a woman thief sold into slavery, even though she cannot make restitution (Sot. 3:8; Yad, Genevah 3:12). Contrary to an express scriptural provision (Deut. 15:17), a female slave's ear may not be pierced (Sif. Deut. 122; Kid. 17b; Yad, Avadim 3:13). The female Hebrew slave can only be a minor below the age of 12 years whom her father (not her mother: Sot. 3:8; Sot. 23b) has sold into bondage (Ex. 21:7; Ket. 3:8; Yad, Avadim 4:1); he may do so only when he has no other means of subsistence left (Tosef. Ar. 5:7; Mekh. Sb-Y 21:7; Yad, Avadim 4:2) and must redeem her as soon as he has the means (Kid. 18a; Yad, loc. cit.).

Non-Hebrew Slaves:

Non-Hebrew slaves (eved Kena'ani) may be acquired by the payment of money, the delivery of a deed of sale, or three years' undisturbed possession (Kid. 1:3; BB 3:1) – to which were later added barter or exchange, and the physical taking into possession (Kid. 22b; Yad, Avadim 5:1; Sh. Ar., YD 267:25).


Hebrew Slaves:

As well as release after six years' service or the beginning of the jubilee year, five more possibilities were added. The slave may redeem himself by paying his master part of the purchase price proportionate to the period served; for example, if he had been bought for 60 dinars and had served four years, he could redeem himself by paying 20 dinars, the whole period of service being six years. The redemption money is paid by a third person, either to the slave or to the master, on condition that it is used only for the redemption (Kid. 1:2; Yad, Avadim 2:8). A slave may be released by a deed of release delivered by his master (Kid. 16a; Yad, Avadim 2:12). He is released on the death of his master, provided the master left no male descendants (Kid. 17b; Yad, loc. cit.). Where the slave has had his ear pierced, he is released on the death of his master, irrespective of the master's surviving issue (Kid. 1:2; Kid. 17b; Yad, Avadim 3:7). Where the master is a non-Jew or a *ger , the slave is released on his death (Kid. 17b; Yad, loc. cit.).

Female Hebrew Slaves:

The provisions relating to release after six years' service, in the jubilee year, by payment, or by deed, also apply to female slaves. In addition, their bondage is terminated when the slave comes of age, i.e., shows "signs" of puberty (simanim: Kid. 1:2; Yad, Avadim 4:5; also see Legal Capacity), and by the death of the master, irrespective of the issue he left (Kid. 17b; Yad, Avadim 4:6).

Alien Slaves:

For alien slaves the bondage is terminated in various fashions. Release may be by payment of money, the price demanded by the master being paid to him by a third party, either directly or through the slave (Kid. 1:3; Yad, Avadim 5:2). A deed of release may be delivered by the master (Kid. 1:3; Yad, Avadim 5:3). A verbal release, or a promise of release, is not sufficient in itself, but the court may enforce it by compelling the master to deliver a deed (Sh. Ar., YD 267:73–74). The slave is freed if the master causes him grievous bodily injury: the two biblical instances of gouging out the eye and knocking out the tooth are multiplied, and a long list of eligible injuries has been laid down (Kid. 24b–25a; Yad, Avadim 5:4–14; Sh. Ar., YD 267:27–39). While the list in the codes was intended to be exhaustive, the better rule seems to be that all injuries leaving any permanent disfigurement are included (Kid. 24a). The rule is confined to non-Hebrew slaves only (Mekh. Nezikin 9); injuries inflicted on Hebrew slaves, male or female, are dealt with as injuries to freemen (BK 8:3; Yad, Ḥovel 4:13 and Avadim 4:6). A slave may also be released if his master bequeaths him all his property (Pe'ah 3:8; Git. 8b–9a; Yad, Avadim 7:9; YD 267:57). By marriage to a freewoman, or by his de facto recognition, in the presence of his master, as a free Jew (e.g., using phylacteries and reading the Torah in public; Git. 39b–40a; Yad, Avadim 8:17; YD 267:70) a slave obtained his freedom. Marriage to the master's daughter seems to have been a not infrequent means to emancipation (Pes. 113a).


Discussions went on for centuries whether slaves, qua property, are to be regarded as belonging to the category of movables or immovables; Gulak (Yesodei 1 (1922), 92) held that originally they were likened to land and only much later to personal property. In effect, they were likened to land as regards modes of *acquisition (money, deed, possession: Kid. 1:3), and in that they could not be the subject of *theft or *ona'ah or bailment (see *Shomerim ; Sifra Be-Har 7:3; BM 4:9), but in other respects were treated as movables (cf. Tos. to BB 150a S.V. avda; Rashbam BB 68a S.V. ella; and see Herzog Institute, 1 (1936), 92–95. For the discussions on this question, see BK 12a; BB 68a, 150a; Yev. 99a; Git. 39a; TJ, Kid. 1:3; etc.). Slaves may be mortgaged (Git. 4:4; BK 11b; ḤM 117:5; YD 267:68; and see *Pledge ). Slaves could be authorized to act as *agents for their masters, and for certain purposes were so authorized by law or custom (Tosef. BK 11:2–7; BK 119a; BM 96a, 99a; BM 8:3; Tosef. Pes. 7:4; Er. 7:6; TJ, Er. 7:6; Ma'as. Sh. 4:4; etc.). Slaves could not act as agents for *divorce (Git. 23b). Slaves could hold property of their own (Tosef. Ar. 1:2; Shek. 1:5; Pes. 8:2, 88b; Yev. 66a; TJ, Yev. 7:1; Tosef. BK 11:1; BB 51b–52a; Sanh. 91a, 105a; Ket. 28a; Meg. 16a; etc.), but they could not dispose of their property by *will (Rashi and Tos. to Nazir 61b). A slave must be circumcised (Shab. 135b; Yad, Milah 1:3; YD 267:1).

A slave is not answerable for his *torts , but when he comes into property after his release he may be held liable in damages for torts committed during bondage (BK 8:4). A slave has the right to stay in the Land of Israel, and may not be sold for export (Git. 4:6). If he is with his master abroad, he may compel him to take him to the land of Israel (Ket. 110b; Yad, Avadim 8:9; YD 267:84), and he may flee with impunity to the Land of Israel, the prohibition on extradition (Deut. 23:16) being applicable to him (Git. 45a; Yad, Avadim 8:10; YD 267:85).

A slave may not be sold to a non-Jew: such sale is tantamount to the slave's release, and the vendor may be ordered by the court to repay the buyer not only the price he received but as much as tenfold of the price as a fine. When the slave is redeemed in this way, he does not return to the vendor but goes free (Git. 4:6; Git. 44a–45a; Yad, Avadim 8:1; YD 267:80). Any slave – except a pauper who sold himself in bondage – can be married by his master to a non-Jewish female slave (Kid. 14b; Ker. 11a; Yad, Avadim 3:12). A bastard ( *mamzer ) can legitimize his issue by marrying a female slave: her son would be a slave by birth and would become a pure freeman on his release (Kid. 3:13). A slave who has been jointly owned by two masters and is released by one becomes half-slave half-freeman; the remaining master may also be compelled by the court to release him (Git. 4:5; Yad, Avadim 7:7; YD 267:62–63).


The biblical "for to the double of the hire of a hireling hath heserved thee six years" (Deut. 15:18) was interpreted as allowing slaves to be given double the work of hired laborers: while the latter work only during daytime, slaves may be required to work also at night (Sif. Deut. 123). The Talmud (Kid. 15a) states that this merely gives the master the right to give the slave a bondwoman in order to beget children. There is some early authority to the effect that a slave has no right to maintenance which can be enforced in law, notwithstanding his obligation to work (Git. 1:6; Git. 12a), the biblical "he fareth well with thee" (Deut. 15:16) being attributed to Hebrew slaves only (Kid. 22a). However, the predominant view, as expressed by Maimonides, is: "It is permissible to work the slave hard; but while this is the law, the ways of ethics and prudence are that the master should be just and merciful, not make the yoke too heavy on his slave, and not press him too hard; and that he should give him of all food and drink. And thus the early sages used to do – they gave their slaves of everything they ate and drank themselves, and had food served to their slaves even before partaking of it themselves… Slaves may not be maltreated or offended – the law destined them for service, not for humiliation. Do not shout at them or be angry with them, but hear them out, as it is written [Job 31:13–14]: 'If I did despise the cause of my man-servant or maid-servant when they contended with me, what then shall I do when God riseth up? and when He remembereth what shall I answer?'" (Yad, Avadim 9:8; and cf. YD 267:17). In another context, Maimonides says of the laws relating to slavery that they are all "mercy, compassion, and forbearance": "You are in duty bound to see that your slave makes progress; you must benefit him and must not hurt him with words. He ought to rise and advance with you, be with you in the place you chose for yourself, and when fortune is good to you, do not grudge him his portion" (Guide 3:39).

Post-Talmudic Law

Slavery became practically extinct in the Diaspora, and was prohibited except insofar as the secular laws allowed it, for instance, where rulers sold tax defaulters into bondage or offered prisoners of war for sale into slavery (Yad, Avadim 9:4; Tur and Sh. Ar., YD 267:18). However, it was laid down that even these "slaves" ought not to be treated as such, except if they did not conduct themselves properly (Yad, Avadim 1:8; YD 267:16). An incident related in the Talmud (BM 73b) was relied on as a precedent for the proposition that bondage may be imposed as punishment for misconduct (YD 267:15).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

Z. Kahn, L'Esclavage selon la Bible et le Talmud (1867; Ger. tr., 1888, Heb. tr., 1892); M. Olitzki, in: MWJ, 16 (1889), 73–83; M. Mielziener, The Institution of Slavery Among the Ancient Hebrews (1894); D. Farbstein, Das Recht der unfreien und der freien Arbeiter nach juedisch-talmudischem Recht (1896); S. Rubin, in: Festschrift… Schwarz (1917), 211–29; idem, Das talmudische Recht auf den verschiedenen Stufen seiner Entwicklung mit dem roemischen verglichen und dargestellt, 1 (Die Slaverei, 1920); J.L. Zuri, Mishpat ha-Talmud, 1 (1921), 29–31; 5 (1921), 122–33; Gulak, Yesodei, 1 (1922), 35, 38, 92; 3 (1922), 67; M. Lurje, Studien zur Geschichte der wirtschaftlichen und sozialen Verhaeltnisse im israelitisch-juedischen Reiche (1927), 49–55; A. Gulak, in: Tarbiz, 1 (1930), 20–26; 2 (1930–31), 246; Herzog Instit, 1 (1936), 414 (index), S.V.; 2 (1939), 314 (index), s.v.; S. Assaf, Be-Oholei Ya'akov (1943), 223–56; J. Mendelsohn, Slavery in the Ancient Near East (1949); ET, 1 (19513), 74f., 77, 333f.; 2 (1949), 29–33, 320–2; 5 (1953), 727–42; 12 (1967), 720f., 738; M. Higger, in: Mazkeret… Herzog (1962), 520–3; S. Zeitlin, in: JQR, 53 (1962/63), 185–218; E.E. Urbach, The Laws Regarding Slavery as a Source for the Social History of the Period of the Second Temple, the Mishnah and Talmud (1964); M. Elon, Ḥerut ha-Perat be-Darkhei Geviyyat Ḥov ba-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1964), 1–17; B. Cohen, Jewish and Roman Law, 1 (1966), 159–278; 2 (1966), 772–7; K.E.R. Pickard, The Kidnapped and the Ransomed (1970). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Elon, Ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1988), 1:179f., 264, 272, 277, 286, 299, 315, 326, 345, 390, 412, 433f., 468, 483–84, 489, 535, 604, 749f., 813; 2:845, 885, 992f., 1108f.; 3:1367f.; idem, Jewish Law (1994), 1:200f., 309, 320, 326, 339, 357, 376, 415, 473, 2:504, 528f., 571, 588f., 596, 651, 748, 924f., 996; 3:1033, 1079, 1200f., 1333; 4:1631; M. Elon and B. Lifshitz, Mafte'aḥ ha-She'elot ve-ha-Teshuvot shel Ḥakhmei Sefarad u-Ẓefon Afrikah (legal digest) (1986), 2:317–19.