We learned in the mishnah on Kiddushin 22 that a Canaanite slave can be freed with money or a bill of manumission. Today we learn about an additional path, albeit one that involves some additional pain and suffering:
(A Canaanite slave) is emancipated through a tooth and an eye and extremities that do not regenerate.
This teaching, based on Exodus 21:26-27, stipulates that if a master damages a slave’s tooth, eye or any of their 24 extremities (fingers, toes, ears, nose and penis), they are set free. Normally, when someone causes this sort of bodily damage to another person, the result is a monetary settlement. But money does no good for a slave, as they are not allowed to own property. Setting a slave free thus provides an actual benefit for the slave and serves as disincentive for a master to physically abuse his slaves.
Where his master was a doctor and (the slave) said to him to paint his eye and blinded it, or drill his tooth and knocked it out, (the slave) laughs at the master and is emancipated.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: “and destroys it” means intends to destroy it.
In this case, a slave is having a problem with their eye or tooth. As it turns out, their master is a medical expert and the slave asks them to treat their ailment. But the procedure goes wrong and the slave loses their tooth or their eyesight. In keeping with the mishnah, the first opinion in the beraita rules that the slave should go free. But Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel disagrees. Exodus 21:26 states that a slave goes free if the owner strikes the eye “and destroys it.” Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel suggests that the verse should be read to mean that the slave goes free if the owner intended to destroy the eye. But if the owner/doctor inadvertently does so, the slave is not set free.
Both opinions agree that slaves should go free if their owners strike them with intent to cause bodily harm. But what Rabban Shimon Ben Gamiel thinks matters most is intent, not consequences, so he rules differently in the case described in the beraita. Yes, the slave lost the use of an eye or appendage, but no harm was intended by their master, so he is not penalized for a failed medical intervention. The slave continues to serve despite their injuries.
But the anonymous opinion of the beraita disagrees. Even if the act was unintentional, it argues, the result is the same — and so should be the consequences. If the slave lost their eye as a result of their master’s actions, they go free. The fact that they do so laughing suggests that the slave recognizes that their master was only trying to help them, but the biblical verse whose concern seems to be to protect the slave from abuse sets them free just the same.
Read all of Kiddushin 24 on Sefaria.