Kiddushin 22

The ear that hears and the door that witnesses.

Under biblical law, a Jew who has become enslaved through indentured servitude or punishment enacted by a court serves for a maximum term of six years. Unless, that is, the enslaved person wishes to remain enslaved. Here are the relevant verses from Exodus:

“If the slave declares, ‘I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,’ his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his master’s slave for life.” (Exodus 21:5-6)

One reason a person would choose perpetual servitude is explained in the verse itself: to remain with his family. In an echo of how slavery was enacted in the American South, children born to a slave in captivity were the possession of the slave owner. A person might therefore enslave himself in perpetuity in order to ensure that his family stays together. 

As we’ve seen, while the institution of slavery was codified in the Torah and its laws parsed in the Talmud, the rabbis were highly ambivalent about it. This is evident largely in the restrictions they placed upon slave owners and the rights they afforded to slaves. But on today’s daf, we see another aspect of the rabbinic aversion to slavery in a fascinating allegorical passage skewering the person who would voluntarily remain enslaved. 

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai would expound this verse as a type of decorative wreath (i.e., as an allegory): Why is the ear different from all the other limbs in the body? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: This ear heard My voice on Mount Sinai when I said: “For to Me the children of Israel are slaves” (Leviticus 25:55), which indicates: And not slaves to slaves. And this man went and acquired a master for himself. Let (this ear) be pierced. 

And Rabbi Shimon bar Rabbi would expound this verse as a type of decorative wreath: Why are the door and a doorpost different from all other objects in the house? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: The door and the doorpost were witnesses in Egypt when I passed over the lintel and the two doorposts. And I said: “For to Me the children of Israel are slaves,” and not slaves to slaves. And I delivered them from slavery to freedom, and this man went and acquired a master for himself. Let him be pierced before them (i.e. the doors).

In the first part of the passage, Rabbi Yohanan asks why the slave’s ear is pierced as opposed to some other body part. His answer: Because the ear heard God proclaim on Mount Sinai that the people of Israel should serve no master besides God. A Hebrew slave who opts for a life of slavery, says Rabbi Yohanan, is rejecting God as his only master. 

In the second part, Rabbi Shimon asks why the doorpost is the object against which the ear is pierced as opposed to some other household object. His answer: It was the doorposts of Jewish homes that were painted with blood during the Exodus from Egypt. Choosing servitude, he reasons, signifies turning one’s back on God who performed miracles to free the Jewish people from slavery. 

Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Shimon use two different allegories but they’re pointing to the same idea: The person who chooses to remain enslaved is in the wrong. 

It’s likely that by the time of the Talmud, the institution of slavery for Jews had ended. Yet several non-Jewish slaves are mentioned in its pages, some by name. So while the rabbis viewed slavery as unbecoming for Jews whose allegiance should belong only to God, that understanding did not seem to extend to enslaved non-Jews, as we’ll learn on the next daf. 

Read all of Kiddushin 22 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 4th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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