Every Pesach, Jews celebrate their liberation from slavery in Egypt, avadim hayinu, we were slaves – in the past tense. Freedom from slavery suffuses our liturgy. When we recite the Hallel psalms at festivals and new moons, we say that we are now servants only of God (Psalms 113:1).
So it comes as a shock to see in Torah portions and the Bible, that it is clear Jews owned each other as slaves in the Land of Israel.
Towards the end of the Book of Leviticus (25:39), it is clear that Jews did serve each other as avadim, but for a limited time period of no more than seven years.
Back in the Book of Exodus (21:6), the same time restriction is given, but also there is provision made for a Jew to stay as a slave for life if he elects to. What was going on? A clue comes from the proximity of these laws to those regarding extreme poverty and the lending of money without interest to those in dire straits. You became a slave if you had no other way of paying your debts. You lost your right to payment for your labour, lost your right to live where you wished and became part of the household of your ‘master’. At least you would be fed and sheltered.
In most Bible translations, the word eved is translated as ‘servant’ when it applies to a Jew and ‘slave’ when it applies to a non-Jew – but the Hebrew word is the same.
Today, the idea that anyone could be enslaved is abhorrent, even though modern slavery exists the world over. What we find in the Bible is a first attempt to make slavery more humane, at least for those who are of your own people.
- Formerly rabbi at Alyth Synagogue, Mark Goldsmith has been appointed Senior Rabbi of Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue from this summer