Gittin 39

In limbo.

In the rabbinic world, the correct procedure for freeing a slave involved an official document called a get shichrur, a bill of manumission. (A rabbinic divorce document is also called a get; which literally means bill or legal document.) When a slave is freed through the proper channels, two things are accomplished: First, the former owner forfeits all rights to the person, their labor and even the products of their labor. Second, the slave becomes a free person, meaning a full Jew who is required to fulfill mitzvot and is permitted to marry another free Jewish person.

On today’s daf, the rabbis continue to debate what happens if an owner attempts to free a slave in a non-standard way, either by verbally renouncing ownership (without handing the slave a get shichrur) or by dedicating the slave to the Temple. The problem with both of these mechanisms is that they might not accomplish both things the get shichrur does.

If an slaveholder renounces ownership, rather than giving a get shichrur, the owner is no longer an owner but it does not alter the status of the slave to make them a free Jew. This might leave the enslaved person in limbo! To prevent this problem, Rav states that in such a case the slave is automatically and completely freed. But not all agree. 

A similar problem arises if a slave is consecrated to the Temple. Here too, the owner relinquishes his status as owner, but the person remains enslaved. And there’s another concern — can a slave even be consecrated? The rabbis bring a beraita that suggests this is impossible: 

Come and hear: One who consecrates his slave, the slave still works and is sustained, as the master consecrated only his monetary value (and donates that sum to the Temple treasury). 

According to this beraita, an owner cannot dedicate a slave to the Temple. Because of the impossibility of the transfer, the slave remains a slave and the owner must, to fulfill their act of consecration, donate the monetary value of the slave. This is because, according to Rabbi Meir, “A person does not make a statement for naught,” —it must affect some legal reality! Since the owner cannot donate the slave to the Temple, he donates money of equivalent value.

Both Rav and Rabbi Meir, as the Talmud presents them, hold that half free slaves are untenable. Rav therefore argues that the slave automatically becomes a free person if his owner renounces his ownership (even though other rabbis think such a renunciation doesn’t change the slave’s status to free) and Rabbi Meir holds that consecrating a slave to the Temple has no effect on the status of the slave — he is not free and is still owned by the same person. Both avoid the problem of a person entering a kind of limbo between slave and free person.

Rabbi Yohanan solves the problem of limbo in a different way, by requiring the one who renounces ownership to follow it up with a bill of manumission:

Ulla says that Rabbi Yohanan says: With regard to one who renounces ownership of his slave, the slave is emancipated but nevertheless requires a bill of manumission.

Rabbi Yohanan’s solution is imperfect, opening up new questions of what happens if the owner renounces ownership and then dies before writing the bill of manumission. But it is born of the same concerns of Rav and Rabbi Meir — to avoid having an enslaved person enter a state of limbo.

The institution of slavery is obviously anathema to our modern values and the Talmud’s hair splitting different aspects of slavery — financial ownership of labor, ownership of a person’s body like an object, slavery as a personal status — is painful. And while we can perhaps appreciate that the rabbis sought to avoid putting an enslaved person into a difficult state of limbo, we can be frustrated that they did not always err on the side of pronouncing them free (as Rav does). But we can appreciate one small silver lining here, which is that the rabbis did envision that slavery is not a permanent status, and believed an enslaved person could become fully free and integrated into the Jewish community. 

Read all of Gittin 39 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 24th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

Discover More

Gittin 13

Posthumous directives.

Gittin 41

Partial slavery.

Gittin 27

Lost and found.