“Understanding Hebrew and Canaanite Servitude”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Behar, we learn of the laws of the Eved Ivri and the Eved K’na’ani, generally translated as the “Hebrew slave” and “Canaanite slave.” These laws have appeared previously in the Torah, but parashat Behar presents us with convenient opportunity to discuss and analyze both these perplexing and challenging statutes.

To my mind, the translation of Eved Ivri and Eved K’na’ani as Hebrew and Canaanite “slaves” is imprecise. The Hebrew language really has no word for slave. The Hebrew word “eved” means “worker,” from the word “a’vo’dah“–work. In fact, in order to say that the Egyptians enslaved the Jewish people in Egypt, the Torah has to indicate (Exodus 1:13) “Va’ya’ah’vee’doo Mitz’rayim et b’nai Yisrael b’fa’rech,” and the Egyptians made the Hebrews work with rigor. Consequently, in both the instance of the Jew and the non-Jew, the more precise translation of “eved” is “servant” or “worker.”

There are two methods by which a Jew may become a Hebrew servant. The first instance cited in Leviticus 25:30: “V’chee yah’much ah’chee’cha ee’mach, v’nim’kar lach,” is the case of a Jew who’s waxen poor–basically bankrupt, and sells himself as a worker to a Jewish owner or master. In many societies, bankruptcy is simply a means of walking away from one’s overwhelming financial obligations. In Jewish jurisprudence, an impoverished debtor is expected to always try to make a good faith effort to return as much of what he owes as possible, and consequently sells himself into servitude for a maximum of six years. If after the six years he has not earned enough to pay back the full amount of his debts, only then are the remaining debts cancelled.

A second manner in which a Jew may become a Hebrew servant involves a Jewish thief who doesn’t have enough resources to return even the principal that he stole. So for instance, if a person steals a candelabra worth $1000, the Torah insists that he pay the victim $2000, in order that the thief sustain the same loss that he would have inflicted on his neighbor from whom he stole. If the thief cannot pay back the penalty, he is not sold into servitude. However, if he cannot even pay back the principal, the $1000, then the court of Jewish law sells him into servitude.

In both these instances, if the servant is married, he enters into servitude with his wife and family, which means that the master incurs the serious financial obligations of feeding, clothing, educating, and providing medical care for the servant’s entire family.

The enormous expense incurred by the master of a married Hebrew servant is probably the reason why the Torah permits the master to give the Hebrew servant a Canaanite maidservant to produce children who will belong to the master. Otherwise the economics of sustaining a married Hebrew servant would never be viable. On the surface, to mere mortals, this arrangement is of questionable rectitude, and is the one feature of the entire issue of servitude which appears to be morally problematic.

The concept of placing a criminal–a petty thief, into a private home, seems akin to the contemporary attempts at criminal rehabilitation. It is assumed that the thief came from a questionable social background, and now, in servitude, will be exposed to the elevated behavior and healthy interactions of an extraordinary family. After all, it’s not the average family that accepts a thief into their home when there are many other less dangerous workers whom they could retain. So, in effect, we see that Hebrew servitude is the Jewish way of dealing with bankruptcy as well as a method of rehabilitating criminals–not at all as “primitive” or “medieval” as we thought when we first encountered the original Biblical texts!

How do we know that the practice of Hebrew servitude was rather benign? The Torah states in Exodus 21:5-6, that if the servant says: “I love my master, my wife and my children–I do not wish to go free!” The master shall take servant to the court of law and pierce his ear with an awl, and he shall serve the master forever. Obviously, if this were a cruel system, not too many servants would want to extend their servitude indefinitely.

Canaanite servitude, on the other hand, appears to be far more challenging. According to most commentaries, those who become Canaanite servants are essentially barbarians, who were captured in war and sold on the slave market. It was assumed that these Canaanites were so primitive, that they did not even adhere to the Seven Noahide Principles. They murdered, raped, stole, sacrificed their children to the idols that they worshiped, they ate animals that were still alive–they failed to subscribe to even the most fundamental and basic rules of humanity.

What is Canaanite servitude? It is an attempt to civilize uncivilized people. A Canaanite servant is bought on the slave market and welcomed into a Jewish home, initially for a period of one year. During that year, the Canaanite is exposed to Jewish values, Jewish ideals and Jewish religious practices, and at the end of the year, the Canaanite must choose whether to convert to partial Judaism or not. We know this from the verse in Genesis 17:12 where the Torah tells us that all males in a Jewish household must be circumcised, whether born at home or bought on the market. According to our understanding, this verse teaches that Canaanites who are in a Jewish the household must convert and are required to observe all the basics of Judaism–keep Shabbat, kashrut, and be circumcised. In fact, for all practical purposes, the only thing that these Canaanites are lacking in order to be full-fledged Jews is freedom. Once they go through the process of conversion to Canaanite servitude all they need do to become fully Jewish is to be released from human ownership and immersed before a religious tribunal. In fact, the Talmud (Brachot 47b) tells the quaint story of the servant of Rabbi Eliezer who was needed for a minyan, and Rabbi Eliezer instantly freed him so that he could be counted as the tenth person to the minyan.

While there is no coercion or force employed in convincing the Canaanites to convert, there was an element of indirect coercion. Most of the Canaanites knew that if they chose not to remain in the Jewish home they would be sold back to the slave market and likely wind up as slaves or gladiators for the brutal Romans or the Greeks. So, most of the Canaanites happily opted to undergo the partial conversion and remain as servants with their Jewish families.

Eventually the vast majority of Canaanite servants were granted their freedom and were integrated into the Jewish community.

The Talmud tells us that a master is not permitted to give his Hebrew servant undignified work. Consequently, a master may not instruct his servant to carry his shoes to the bathhouse, or to dig a hole indefinitely. One may instruct the servant to dig for an hour or two, or to dig for 10 or 20 feet–but the task must be quantified. Similarly, if there’s only enough food for one person to eat, the servant eats while the master goes hungry. A master is not permitted to feed himself filet mignon, and serve the servant goulash. If there’s only one bed, the master must sleep on the floor. That is why the Talmud says (Kiddushin 22a): “He who acquires a servant for himself really acquires a master for himself.”

Similarly, it was strictly forbidden to abuse a Canaanite. And so, if a Hebrew master strikes a Canaanite servant and injures him in any of his major limbs or organs, the servant goes free, which is not true for a Hebrew servant. If the master knocks out a tooth of a Canaanite servant, the master loses the entire value of the servant. These laws serve to forcefully discourage any abuse of Canaanite servants.

And so we see, that what on the surface seemed to be two very difficult and primitive concepts, Hebrew servitude and Canaanite servitude are quite enlightened, and there is much that we can learn from them. All of this is another instance of showing that when it comes to universal values, the Torah was there from the start, and is often still light-years ahead of contemporary values.

May you be blessed.