Gittin 41

Partial slavery.

As Frederick Douglass wrote in his famous 1852 Fourth of July address to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Union, “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.” As a society, we have long known that the institution of slavery is wrong. But not every society’s slavery is the same. And on today’s daf, we learn about one way ancient slavery was wrong — partial enslavement. 

The mishnah addresses the case of an enslaved person who is jointly owned by two people. One person emancipates her share of the enslaved person, while the other one does not. The enslaved person is now partially enslaved. But how does that work in practice? The mishnah records a dispute:  

He serves his master one day and himself one day; this is the statement of Beit Hillel. 

Beit Shammai says: You have remedied his master. You have not remedied the slave himself. It is not possible for him to marry an enslaved woman because he is already a half-freeman. It is not possible for him to marry a free woman, as he is still a half-slave.

If you say he should be idle and not marry, but wasn’t the world created only for procreation, as it is stated: “He did not create it to be a waste; He formed it to be inhabited” (Isaiah 45:18)? 

While Beit Hillel argues that a partially emancipated person can just “be enslaved” every other day, Beit Shammai insists that this puts the partially emancipated man in an impossible situation — without the (marital) privileges of either freedom or enslavement. And without marital privileges, this partially emancipated man is unable to fulfill God’s plan for the world, a plan which requires new generations of humans to be produced. According to Beit Shammai, then, what must happen if one of the two enslavers emancipates her share?

For the betterment of the world, his master is forced to make him a freeman, and the slave writes a note (to pay) half his value. 

According to Beit Shammai, if one enslaver manumits her share, the other enslaver is forced to as well and the formerly enslaved person is obligated to pay her for the financial loss. 

Now, at this point, it would be reasonable to assume that Beit Hillel’s position wins out — after all, in almost all cases, the rabbis follow Beit Hillel over Beit Shammai. But the mishnah gives us a surprising conclusion: 

And Beit Hillel retracted to rule in accordance with the statement of Beit Shammai

The mishnah rules in favor of Beit Shammai: If an enslaved person is jointly owned by two enslavers, and one manumits him, the court compels the second owner to manumit him entirely. Partial slavery is not allowed. 

Or is it? The Talmud’s subsequent discussion actually creates a great deal of space for partial enslavement after all. And this space, while morally frustrating, sheds important light on what ancient societies, Jewish and otherwise, might have actually looked like.

For as historian Dr. Catherine Hezser has argued:

“Although both Graeco-Roman and Jewish writers emphasize the legal and social distinctions between slave and free, in reality the boundaries between the two categories were rather blurred…in ancient society some people seem to have stood on the border between slavery and freedom, being part of both worlds but not properly belonging to either of them.”

Read all of Gittin 41 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 26th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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