Talmud pages

Gittin 40

Symbolism and status.

In the wizarding world inhabited by Harry Potter and his friends, house elves, who serve indefinitely as servants to a particular wizard family, are emancipated if they receive a gift of clothing from their masters. House elves normally dress in rags and so a gift of proper clothing represents their owner’s desire to change their status and make them free.

Although this custom functions within the confines of a fictional world, it reflects something which is true in legal systems as well — that is, symbolic acts can cause a change of status. This is true of the rabbinic legal system as well. On today’s daf, we learn this:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: A slave who dons tefillin in the presence of his master is emancipated

As Rashi points out, it’s not the way of slaves to don tefillin, as they are not the masters of their own time and are therefore exempted by the rabbis from performing rituals that must be done at specific times. As such, the act of wearing tefillin in the presence of their master reflects a change in status. Wearing a ritual object that is worn by those who are free makes one free.

Or does it? The Gemara relates beraita that challenges this view.

If a master borrowed money from him (his slave); or if his master appointed him as a steward (over his possessions); or if the slave donned tefillin in the presence of his master; or if he read three verses (of the Torah) in the synagogue in the presence of his master, this slave is not emancipated.

The Gemara brings this beraita to challenge Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. In addition to the example of tefillin cited by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, each of the actions listed are typically performed by one who is free — but as the beraita indicates, enacting them does not emancipate a slave.

How can we resolve the tension between these two sources? Rabba bar Rav Sheila does so by suggesting that Rabbi Yehoshua was talking about a specific situation:

Where the master placed tefillin on him.

Performing one of these acts does not in and of itself free a slave, as the beraita teaches. But if the slave owner takes an active role in the process by placing the tefillin on the slave or directing them to read Torah in synagogue, the master has indicated their consent and the action becomes legally valid in emancipating the slave. Later authorities require the former owner to follow this up with a bill of manumission, which puts in writing that which was already established by the original symbolic act. Contradiction resolved.

Well, mostly. While the involvement of the slave owner differentiates Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s case from the situation in the beraita, the distinction doesn’t hold for the two financial acts it lists. Borrowing money from a slave or appointing them steward over their owner’s possessions are both actions performed by the owner, just as in Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s case, yet the beraita does not consider them sufficient to emancipate a slave.

How does the Gemara confront this inconsistency? It doesn’t. So we’re left with a collection of actions performed by a slave owner, some of which result in the freeing of a slave and some of which do not. So if you’re a slave seeking to be freed (or if Harry Potter and his friends are trying to effect that change on your behalf), better to get your master to ask you to read Torah rather than balance their checking account.

Read all of Gittin 40 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 25th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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