Talmud

Gittin 12

An enslaved messenger.

Yesterday we learned that when a man gives a bill of divorce to a messenger to deliver, the rabbis allow him to change his mind and nullify the document, as long as he does so before it is delivered. However, in the case of manumission, they do not allow him to change his mind. Why? Because of the principle:

One can act in a person’s interest in his absence, but one can act to a person’s detriment only in his presence.

In other words, when the man hands the document to the messenger, if the legal actions contained therein are for the benefit of the person to whom the document is addressed, the messenger acts as their agent and the terms go into effect immediately. But if the document has a negative impact on the person, it has to be delivered in order to be operative.

The rabbis assume divorce is not advantageous for women, who draw sustenance from their husbands. In the case of a slave, however, they reason that the document of manumission is clearly advantageous because masters were not required to sustain their slaves.

Or maybe they were? The Gemara raises this question:

Can we conclude that a master is allowed to say to his slave: “Work for me but I will not sustain you”?!

Is it possible that a slave is not entitled to basic sustenance from their master? This seems indefensible to the rabbis who next consider a middle position:

We are dealing with a case where he said to the slave: Spend your earnings to sustain yourself.

In other words, a master cannot demand work of his slaves while refusing them sustenance. If he does not supply their food, they must be allowed to retain their earnings to sustain themselves.

Which raises another interesting question: What about the slave who is not able to work enough to offset their own needs? 

A slave who is not worth the bread that he consumes, for what is he needed by his master or his mistress?

If a slave is not able to earn their keep, their master would have no motivation to retain them. 

In the Mishneh Torah, (Laws of Slaves, 9:7), Rambam suggests that people have incentive to sustain their slaves and so while a master is allowed to say to his slave, “Work for me but I will not sustain you,” it is unlikely that one would choose to do so. And, if they should: “The slave must instead, go and beg from door to door and derive his sustenance from charity. For the Jewish community is obligated to support the slaves that live among them.”

The presence of slavery in the rabbinic tradition is difficult to read about. That Jewish law provides for the communal support of slaves who are not sustained by their masters does little to change that. Slaves and wives were subordinate to the men who ran their households. But the slaves, as we can see from today’s page, were known to have a more difficult and vulnerable position. Would that this insight had led the rabbis to make slavery a thing of the past. But instead that task was undertaken by later generations.

Read all of Gittin 12 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 28th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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