Kiddushin 15

Methods of midrash.

As we saw yesterday, an Israelite may sell themselves as an indentured servitude if they owe money they cannot pay back or are simply destitute. The Torah mandates that this type of slave may be kept for no longer than six years before being set free, but he can be redeemed earlier, either by paying off his debt himself or if others do it for him. 

On today’s daf, the rabbis consider whether the redemption relieves the servant of his debt, or if his servitude is simply transferred to the person who redeemed him for the remainder of his term. How one answers that question depends on how one reads the relevant verse in the Torah. Leviticus 25:49 states: “Either his uncle or his uncle’s son may redeem him, or any that is near of kin unto him of his family may redeem him; or if he becomes rich, and he is redeemed.

In the Gemara, this verse is understood to describe three ways a servant might be set free.

“Either his uncle or his uncle’s son may redeem him”; this is the redemption by relatives. 

“Or if he becomes rich”this is self-redemption.

“And he is redeemed”; this is redemption by others.

Of the three situations mentioned in the verse, only the second one — in which a servant comes into money and buys his freedom — obviously results in the servant going free. The other two cases aren’t so clear. One could make the case that no matter who pays off the debt, the servant should go free (as their debt is paid). Or one could argue that if a servant is redeemed by another, they become indebted to their redeemer and obligated to serve them until their (new) debt is worked off.

Can we learn anything about what should happen in these unclear cases from the one case that is clear? Yes, says the Gemara, but what you learn depends upon the method of midrash you use to interpret the verse. And there are two opinions about what that method should be. Here’s the first:

Rabbi Yosei HaGelili maintains: A biblical phrase is interpreted midrashically (based on its juxtaposition to the phrase immediately) preceding it. 

Therefore, one should compare redemption by relatives to self-redemption. Just as self-redemption leads to freedom, so too, redemption by relatives leads to freedom. 

According to Rabbi Yosei HaGelili, a verse should be interpreted in light of the one that precedes it. In our case, that would mean the middle case (in which the servant redeems himself) is applied to the previous one. Based on this approach, a person redeemed by his relatives would go free just as if he had redeemed himself. But if the person is redeemed by others (that is, non-relatives), the servant becomes enslaved to his redeemer.

The second interpretive approach is just the opposite: 

Rabbi Akiva maintains that a verse is interpreted midrashically (based on its juxtaposition to the verse immediately) after it. 

Therefore, one should compare redemption by others to self-redemption. Just as self-redemption leads to freedom, so too, redemption by others is to freedom.

According to Rabbi Akiva, being redeemed by relatives does not set one free, but being redeemed by non-relatives does.

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi presents a third option. He holds that a biblical phrase is interpreted based upon its juxtaposition to the phrase immediately preceding it as well as to the phrase immediately after it. In his view then, if a servant is redeemed, he goes free no matter who paid off the debt.

Often, a dispute between tannaim is rooted in a different legal opinion or a disagreement about what a verse means. But in this case, the disagreement has nothing to do with their understanding of the rules of indentured servitude, nor is it about what a verse means. Rather, they are divided by the rules of interpretation. And it’s their interpretive disagreement that leads them to a halakhic one. Sometimes, it’s about the process and not the content.

Read all of Kiddushin 15 on Sefaria.

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

Discover More

Kiddushin 20

The Merciful One is lenient with regard to a slave.

Kiddushin 17

Grasping too much.

Kiddushin 24

Set free laughing.