Once upon a time, slavery was an almost universally accepted economic system. Whatever our values and opinions about slavery may be today, slaves were a fact of life in the not nearly so distant past. In some cultures, slaves were simply unpaid labor, treated decently. In others, slaves were no better than objects or livestock. Because slavery was such a natural part of life, it is not surprising that the Torah includes slavery and laws on how a slave must be treated.

Beyond the laws that define an Eved Ivri (Hebrew slave) and an Eved Canaani (non-Jewish slave), there is an additional halacha (law) concerning runaway slaves: “You shall not deliver to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He will dwell with you, in the midst of you, in the place which he shall choose within one of your gates, where it is good to him, you shall not harm him” (Deuteronomy 23:16-17).

This law applies to any slave, whether Jew or non-Jew. One might then ask, how can a society that permits slavery not return a runaway slave? The Jewish laws on slavery are focused very much on the proper master-slave relationship. A slave is given the same accommodations as a member of the household (quality of food, sleeping quarters, etc.), and if a master accidentally maims (even just knocking out a tooth) a slave, then that slave is set free. Perhaps, Deuteronomy 23:16-17 is premised on the belief that any slave who needed to run away was not being treated to the Torah’s standard and was therefore deserving of freedom.

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