Kiddushin 20

The Merciful One is lenient with regard to a slave.

Today’s daf continues our discussion of how people both enter into and leave states of enslavement. We have learned that an enslaved person can buy himself by paying back his enslaver. But how much does he have to pay? 

The sages taught: One was sold for 100 dinars and increased (in value) and stood at 200, from where that one assesses him only 100 dinars? As it is stated: “Out of the money that he was bought for.” (Leviticus 25:51)

Regardless of whether the man has gotten physically stronger or learned new skills while enslaved (both of which would increase his purchase price on the slave market), if he wants to emancipate himself, he is only required to pay back what he was worth when first enslaved. But what if he has gotten physically weaker? Or is now so old that his remaining years of labor are limited? 

If he was sold for 200 and decreased and stood at 100 dinars, from where that one assesses him only 100 dinars? The verse states: “According to his years he shall give back the price of his redemption.” (Leviticus 25:52)

If the slave’s purchase price rose during enslavement, the slave pays the original amount he was worth when he was first enslaved. But if his purchase price on the slave market has decreased while enslaved, then he is obligated to pay only his current value in order to emancipate himself. In both cases, then, the man emancipates himself by paying the lower of two purchase prices. Why?

One of the sages said to Abaye: After all, to those verses one could expound them leniently and one could expound them stringently. What did you see to expound them leniently? Let us expound them stringently.

We’ve seen how the two verses from Leviticus can be expounded leniently to enable the emancipated slave to consistently pay the lower price for his freedom. But it’s also possible to read them more stringently and require him consistently to pay the higher price. Perhaps “according to his years” refers to the slave’s years of development that now render him more valuable and should therefore require him to pay a higher price for his emancipation. When verses can be read in both lenient and stringent ways, how do we decide which approach to take?

(Abaye explains): It cannot enter your mind (to read these verses stringently) since the Merciful One is lenient with regard to a slave. As it is taught: “Because he fares well with you” (Deuteronomy 15:16), which teaches with you in food and with you in drink. It should not be that you eat fine bread and he eats inferior bread; you drink aged wine and he drinks new wine; you sleep on soft sheets and he sleeps on straw. From here they stated: Anyone who acquires a Hebrew slave is like one who acquires a master for himself.

Abaye turns to another verse from Deuteronomy to offer a specific value with which to frame the laws of enslavement and emancipation: God wants the enslaved person to fare well, and so treats the (Hebrew) slave with leniency. With this ethical framework in mind, Abaye insists that the verses from Leviticus about emancipation should be read leniently. 

Now, if you’ve been reading these daily essays for a while, you know that I am by no means an apologist for slavery in the ancient world, or in the rabbinic legal system. Abaye’s teaching is probably the most egalitarian statement on slavery in the Talmud, but I am skeptical that enslaved people were actually treated in this way. Still, this whole discussion offers us a rabbinic way to approach verses generally that can be read in multiple ways (leniently or stringently). When we struggle to figure out how to read the Torah, we can turn to another biblical text which offers us a clear statement of values and use that as our interpretive framework. And as today’s daf reminds us, this is not only a modern approach — we see it modeled for us in the Talmud itself.

Read all of Kiddushin 20 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 2nd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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