Slavery in the Torah
Selected Verses on Slavery Questions for Discussion The Rabbis on Owning a Hebrew Slave

Selected Verses on Slavery

The apparent contradictions in the excerpts below are reconciled by the Rabbis through applying them to four categories of a slave:
    1. Hebrew thief (male or female) sold by the court in order to pay penalties for the theft (freed in the seventh year)
    2. Hebrew male selling himself voluntarily, motivated by poverty (freed in the Jubilee year)
    3. Hebrew female sold by her father as wife/ concubine for the master or master's son
    4. Non-Hebrew male or female
For more details, see the comments to the relevant verses in such bible commentaries as J.H. Hertz or A. Cohen (both published by Soncino Press).

Exodus 21
  1. When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years. In the seventh year, he shall go free without payment.
  2. If he comes alone, he shall leave alone; if he has a wife, his wife shall leave with him.
  3. If his master gives him a wife and she has borne him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall belong to the master, and he shall leave alone.
  4. But if the slave declares, “I love my master, my wife, and my children. I do not wish to go free,”
  5. his master shall take him unto G-d, he shall take him to the door or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him forever.

  1. When a man strikes his male slave or his female slave with a rod, and he dies under his hand, he must be avenged.
  2. But if he survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, since he is the other's property

  1. When a man strikes the eye of his male slave or his female slave and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye.
  2. If he knocks out the tooth of his male slave or his female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.

Leviticus 22
  1. No lay person [i.e. one not a priest nor of a priest's family] may eat of sacred donations. The tenant of a priest or a hired worker may not eat of sacred donations.
  2. But if a priest buys a person, as monetary purchase, he may eat of it, and those born of his household shall eat of his bread.

Leviticus 25
  1. When your kinsman is impoverished and sells himself to you, do not work him the work of a slave.
  2. He shall remain with you as a hired worker or tenant; he shall serve with you until the jubilee year.
  3. Then he and his children with him shall go out from you. He shall return to his family and return to his ancestral holding.
  4. For they are my servants, whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they may not be sold from the slave block.
  5. You shall not rule over them with rigor; but shall fear your G-d.
  6. Such male and female slaves as you may have -- it is from the nations round about you that you may buy male slaves and female slaves.
  7. You may also buy them from among the children of aliens resident among you, or from their families that are among you, whom they begot in your land. These shall become your possession.
  8. You may bequeath them to your children after you, to inherit as property. You may enslave them for ever. But as for your Israelite kin, one over his kin shall not rule with rigor.

Deuteronomy 15
  1. If your fellow male or female Hebrew is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, but in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you.
  2. When you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed.
  3. Furnish him liberally from your flock, from your threshing floor, and from your winepress; give him that with which the L-rd has blessed you.
  4. You will remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the L-rd your G-d redeemed you, therefore I am commanding you this thing today.
  5. But if it happens that he says to you, “I shall not leave you,” because he loves you and your household, because it is good for him with you,
  6. you will take the awl and put it in his ear into the door, and he will be your slave forever. Also with your female slave you shall do thus.
  7. When you let him go free, do not consider it a hardship, since for six years he has given you double the service of a hired worker, and the L-rd G-d shall bless you in all that you do.
What the Rabbis learn from Deut. 15:16.

Deuteronomy 23

  1. You shall not deliver to his master a slave who escapes from his master to you.
  2. He may dwell with you in your midst, wherever he chooses, within any of your gates which pleases him. Do not wrong him.

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Slavery in the Torah:
Questions for Discussion