Berakhot 16

Mourning a slave.

Sometimes the Talmud is painful to read. Consider this from today’s daf:

The Sages taught: For slaves and maidservants who die, one does not stand in a row of comforters to console the mourners, one recites neither the blessing of the mourners nor the consolation of the mourners.

When most people hear the word “slave” today, they think of chattel slavery — the kind brutally inflicted on Africans who were kidnapped and brought to the Americas. Such slaves were considered the personal property of their owners. The slavery known in the Hebrew Bible and Talmud is not chattel slavery but bonded labor, more akin to indentured servitude, in which slaves are required to work against a debt that can (at least theoretically) be repaid in full. Such slaves were not held indefinitely, though very often for a long period of time.

The rabbis of the Talmud view the slave-master relationship in largely economic terms and therefore deem it unseemly for slave owners to develop familial feelings for their slaves. Despite this official rabbinic position, however, there is plenty on today’s page to indicate that the reality of slave ownership was more complex. For instance, a bit further down the page we are given this story:

When Rabbi Eliezer’s maidservant died, his students entered to console him. When he saw them coming, he went up to the second floor, and they followed him. He entered the gatehouse, and they followed him. He entered the banquet hall, and they followed him. 

He said to them: I thought you would be burned by lukewarm water, but now I see you are not even burned by boiling hot water [i.e. you can’t seem to take a hint]. Did I not teach you that for slaves and maidservants who die, one does not stand in a row of comforters to console the mourners, and one neither recites the blessing of the mourners nor does one recite the consolation of the mourners? Rather, what does one say about them when they die? Just as we say to a person whose ox or donkey has died “may the Omnipresent replenish your loss,” so too do we say for one’s slave or maidservant who has died, “may the Omnipresent replenish your loss.”

Rabbi Eliezer was known for being particularly severe (and, not entirely incidentally, more sympathetic to the strict school of Shammai than the more lenient school of Hillel). But even so, his behavior here is jarringly unfeeling. Not only does Eliezer decline to mourn the death of his maidservant, but he chastises the students who offer him condolences, callously reminding them that a slave is no different from a work animal.

But notice, too, that the impulse of the students is to assume that Rabbi Eliezer — even the austere Rabbi Eliezer — would mourn his slave. This hints at a tension between the rabbinic legal pronouncement, and the actual lived experience of people in this period.

There is, in fact, a famous rabbis who did very publicly mourn his slave, as recorded right in the mishnah on today’s page:

When his slave, Tavi, died, Rabban Gamliel accepted condolences for his death as one would for a close family member. His students said to him: “Have you not taught us, our teacher, that one does not accept condolences for the death of slaves?” Rabban Gamliel said to his students: “My slave, Tavi, is not like all the rest of the slaves, he was virtuous.”

This is the mirror image of the Rabbi Eliezer story. In this story, it is the teacher, Rabban Gamliel, who mourns the slave and the students who expect emotional austerity.

The Gemara offers no clear resolution on this issue, but allows readers to sit with the complexity and the profound difficulty.

Read all of Berakhot 16 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 19, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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