The Talmud records a dispute between Rabbi Yishmael who permits emancipating a Canaanite slave and Rabbi Akiva who forbids emancipation, unless involving a mitzvah. The dispute revolves around the interpretation of the phrase in Leviticus 25:46 תעבדו בהם לעלם, you shall work them (the Canaanite slave) forever. The Talmud invokes a number of verses to define the permissibility of acquiring this type of slave and other verses to frame the dispute. This note will explain the use of these verses in acquiring and emancipating these slaves.
Note: The Talmud digresses from the main dispute to discuss related issues. Verses or concepts that are not germane to the dispute but add significant background information are shown in parenthesis.
Acquiring Canaanite Slaves
The Talmud first explains the permissibility of acquiring slaves of Canaanite descent. On one hand the Torah commands destruction of the seven nations of Canaan (Deuteronomy 20:16-18). On the other hand the Torah permits purchasing slaves from the residents who live with you and were born in Israel (Leviticus 25:45) because these children are not Canaanites. The Talmud interprets this verse as referring to a marriage between a non-Canaanite father (i.e. resident who came from another land) and a Canaanite mother. (The Talmud assumes that the mother remains in her native country). This interpretation establishes the rule of patrilineal descent for non–Jews. (Hence if the nationalities of the parents were reversed the offspring would be Canaanites and subject to destruction.)
(The destruction of the seven nations is not an absolute requirement. If the Canaanites accept the seven mitzvoth of Noah and agree to serve the Jewish people they are spared, Rambam Laws of Kings 6:4. Rashi on Deuteronomy 20:18, based on Sifrei 202, adds that we may also accept them as converts if they are sincere. The Talmud did not mention these possibilities because it wanted to focus on a more general case. In addition Leviticus 25:44 permits the purchase of slaves from non-Canaanite nations.)
The Talmud initially considered that Rabbi Yishmael interpreted the phrase in Leviticus 25:46 as referring to the permissibility of acquiring Canaanites slaves. However the Talmud reconsiders and accepts that permissibility is derived from the previous verse (ibid. 25:45) as explained above. At this point Rabbis Yishmael and Akiva are in agreement about the source of this permissibility. Hence the Talmud asks, “What is the source of disagreement?”
Source of Disagreement
The verse in Leviticus 25:46 contains two phrases, which on the surface, appear to be similar:
- “You shall work them (Canaanite slaves) forever.” תעבדו בהם לעלם
- “ With your brethren, the children of Israel, a man with his brother, you shall not subjugate him through hard labour.” בפרך וב תרדה לא ובאחיכם
Since an Israelite may not subject his brother (i.e. fellow Israelite) to hard labour, it follows that one may subject a Canaanite slave to hard labour. Hence the first phrase, at a literal level, appears redundant.
Rabbi Akiva’s Position
In the face of an apparent redundant phrase, Rabbi Akiva interprets the first phrase as an obligation. Therefore he forbids the emancipation of Canaanite slaves, unless in the face of a mitzvah.
Rabbi Yishmael’s Position
By contrast, Rabbi Yishmael does not interpret the apparent redundant phrase as an obligation but as a style of the Torah to repeat a phrase if a new law is taught in the verse. However the Talmud here does not indicate this new law. The commentator Tosafot Shantz suggests the law mentioned in Bava Metziah 73b which allows subjugation of Jews that do not behave properly. Since a Jew may be subjugated, under certain conditions, (i.e. a new law) then the expression תעבדו בהם לעלם is a matter of style. Therefore an Israelite may free a Canaanite slave.
Note: The following paragraph is not germane to the above dispute. However it provides background information about slave labour among Israelites
Background – Slave Labour
|Work with Rigour
|Verse (Leviticus 25)
|Source (Oral law)
|Sifra on verse
|Hebrew Free Man
|Bava Metziah 73b
|Bava Metziah 73b
|Allowed with consent
|Sifra on verse
The Torah clearly forbids the master from working his Hebrew servant with rigour בפרך. In fact the Torah uses the same term for rigour when describing slavery in Egypt (Exodus 1:13-14), implying that Hebrews treat each other with respect and not fall into the trap where the previously exploited become the exploiters. Similarly the Torah forbids a leader, religious or political, from enslaving a fellow Israelite. However if an Israelite misbehaves the Torah permits forced labour, as a corrective action if necessary. The Talmud derives this law from verse 46 where the word ובאחיכם (fellow Israelite) immediately follows the law of the Canaanite slave, implying a situation where rigorous work is permitted. In addition the Sifra derives from the same verse, interpreting the exclusionary term בו (only him) in reference to rigorous labour, applies only to a Hebrew slave but not a Hebrew worker. This worker may accept difficult labour conditions provided that he is properly compensated. If the conditions are too onerous then the worker may leave his job or appeal to the Jewish court if there is a breach of contract.)
The dispute between Rabbis Yishmael and Akiva depends upon the interpretation of the phrase תעבדו בהם לעלם, voluntary or obligatory respectively. With the former view an additional law must be found to account for the apparent redundancy of phrases in verse 46. With the latter view the apparent redundancy implies obligation.