Kiddushin 23

Against the slave's interest.

For several days now, we have been discussing the second mishnah of Tractate Kiddushin, which addresses the laws concerning the acquisition and emancipation of a Jewish slave. On yesterday’s daf, we encountered the third mishnah of the tractate, which turns to the laws regarding a non-Jewish, or Canaanite, slave. And the differences couldn’t be more stark — or startling. 

While a Jewish slave’s term of servitude is capped at six years (unless the slave specifically requests otherwise), non-Jewish slaves can be held for life. And while a Jewish slave can buy their own freedom, this option isn’t available to a non-Jewish slave, who can only be freed by a bill of manumission from the slave’s owner or through money provided by others. On today’s daf we find an even more striking difference between the way the rabbis — or at least one rabbi — regarded Jewish and non-Jewish slaves. 

The mishnah ruled that a non-Jewish slave can be freed with money, but the particulars of this are confusing. According to Rabbi Meir, the money must be given by other people to the slave’s master. But the majority opinion is that while the slave can give the money to the master, the money itself must come from others as the slave cannot own property so anything they possess belongs to the master by definition. 

The Gemara probes the circumstances:

With what are we dealing? If we say (that this is referring to emancipating the Canaanite slave) without his consent, (that creates a difficulty). After all, we have heard Rabbi Meir say: It is against the slave’s interest to leave his master’s authority for freedom; and we learned: One can act in a person’s interest in his absence, but one can act against a person’s interest only in his presence.

The Gemara suggests that the situation Rabbi Meir is describing is one where the non-Jewish slave does not wish to be freed (perhaps for the same reasons the Jewish slave may not want to be freed, as we saw on Kiddushin 22). But that creates a problem. Rabbi Meir apparently believes it is contrary to the slave’s interests to go free, since slavery in the rabbinic legal system affords the slave certain benefits. And there’s an established legal principle that one can only act against a person’s interests while they are present. If they’re not, you can only act for their benefit. 

The Gemara will quickly determine that this is not the case under discussion, but Rabbi Meir’s view is remarkable nonetheless. Aside from the fact that most of us take it for granted that it’s better to be free than a slave (Passover, anyone?), the rabbis clearly did not believe it was good for Jews to be slaves. As we saw yesterday, they were sharply critical of a Jewish slave who elected not to go free at the conclusion of their six-year term, considering it tantamount to betraying God.

Yet according to Rabbi Meir at least, it’s in a non-Jew’s interest to remain a slave. And if you were to free that slave without their consent, you would be doing them a disservice. As we’ll see later on the page, the majority of rabbis don’t agree with Rabbi Meir on this point. But even so, there’s no getting around the fact that the idea of a non-Jew in servitude indefinitely does not evoke the kind of affront the rabbis experience at the thought of a Jew doing the same (as evidenced by the two allegories we encountered yesterday).

It’s no secret that, save for the seven Noahide laws, the halakhah extrapolated in the Talmud and codified in later rabbinic works is applicable to Jews alone. But what we see on today’s daf is something else: that there is a strain in rabbinic thinking that regards Jews and non-Jews as different in some essential way beyond the particular set of laws to which each are subject. Though it may not be the majority view, it is one that has persisted in Jewish thought for many centuries after the Talmud and which we’ll encounter again before our journey through Daf Yomi is complete. 

Read all of Kiddushin 23 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 5th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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