“Understanding Hebrew and Canaanite Servitude”
(updated and revised from Behar 5763-2003)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Behar, we learn of the laws of the עֶבֶד עִבְרִיEved Ivri, and the עֶבֶד כְּנַעַנִיEved 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 a convenient opportunity to discuss and analyze both these perplexing and challenging statutes.

I would argue that the translation of Eved Ivri and Eved K’na’ani as Hebrew and Canaanite “slaves” is imprecise at best, and, in fact, most probably incorrect. The Hebrew language really has no word for slave. The Hebrew word עֶבֶד –“eved” means “worker,” from the word עֲבוֹדָה a’vo’dah”–work. In fact, in order to say that the Egyptians enslaved the Jewish people in Egypt, the Torah, in Exodus 1:13, has to add the adverbial description “parech,” וַיַּעֲבִדוּ מִצְרַיִם אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּפָרֶךְ, and the Egyptians made the Hebrews work with rigor. Consequently, in both instances of Jew and non-Jew, the more precise translation of Eved is “servant” or “worker.”

There are two situations in which a Jew becomes a Hebrew servant. The first instance, cited in Leviticus 25:39: וְכִי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ, וְנִמְכַּר לָךְ, is the case of a Jew who is waxen poor–basically bankrupt, and sells himself as a worker to a Jewish owner or master. In many societies, bankruptcy is a method of relieving a debtor from overwhelming financial obligations. In Jewish jurisprudence, an impoverished person is expected to always make a good-faith effort to return as much of what is owed as possible, and consequently sells himself into servitude for a maximum of six years. If after six years the debtor 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, a person who steals a candelabra worth $1,000, is required by the Torah to pay the victim $2,000, so that the thief would sustain the same loss that he 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 $1,000, 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, requiring the master to assume the heavy financial obligations of providing food, clothing, housing, education and 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 (only the thief says Maimonides, Laws of Servitude 3:4) a Canaanite maidservant to produce children who legally 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 practice 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 comes from a complicated social background, and now, in servitude, will be exposed to the elevated behavior and healthy interactions of an extraordinary benevolent 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 in fact benign? The Torah in Exodus 21:5-6, states, 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 the 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 harsh or cruel system, not 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 were most likely enemies captured in war or bought 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, ate animals that were still alive–they failed to abide by even the most fundamental and basic rules of humanity.

What then is the Jewish practice of 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 only one year. During that year, the Canaanite is exposed to Jewish values, Jewish ideals and Jewish religious practices. At the end of the year, the Canaanite must choose whether to convert to partial Judaism or not. This understanding is derived from the verse in Genesis 17:12 where the Torah declares that all males in a Jewish household must be circumcised, whether born at home or bought on the market.

According to the Talmud, this verse teaches that Canaanites who are in a Jewish household must convert and are required to observe all the basics of Judaism–Shabbat, kashrut, and they must be circumcised. In fact, for all practical purposes, the only requirement that these Canaanite servants lack in order to be regarded as 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. The Talmud (Brachot 47b), in fact, tells the quaint story of the servant of Rabbi Eliezer who was needed for a minyan, and Rabbi Eliezer freed him so that he could instantly be counted as the tenth person to the minyan.

While no coercion or force is employed in convincing the Canaanites to convert, there was an element of indirect coercion. Most of the Canaanites knew that if they chose to remain in the Jewish home, they would be treated humanely. But if they were sold back to the general slave market, they would 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 fully 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 in Kiddushin 22a, declares: “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 primary limbs or organs the servant goes free, which is not true for a Hebrew servant. Thus, if the master knocks out even a tooth of a Canaanite servant, the master loses the entire value of the servant. These laws served to forcefully discourage any abuse of Canaanite servants.

And, so we see, that what on the surface seemed to be two very difficult, indeed, primitive concepts, Hebrew servitude and Canaanite servitude are quite enlightened, and there is much that contemporary society can learn from them.

Once again, we see another instance of showing the world, 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.

The festival of Lag Ba’Omer (literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start on Wednesday night, May 18th, and continue all day Thursday, May 19, 2022. The Omer period extends for 49 days from the second night of Passover through the day before the festival of Shavuot. The 33rd day is considered a special day because, on that day, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying and marks, as well, the anniversary of the passing of great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.