Most of the ancient documents about slavery that have survived until today are written from the perspective of slaveholders. Certainly, the Talmud falls in this category: composed by free men, some of whom owned people, for an audience of free men. In such a document, we rarely get to hear the voices and perspectives of enslaved people themselves.
Today the Talmud does allow us to recover those voices. Or, if not their voices exactly, their actions.
Rabbi Hisda shares a story that, in his day, is already several centuries old, about a slaveholding woman named Beloreya who was in the process of converting to Judaism. We have probably met Beloreya the convert before — back on Rosh Hashanah 17 and 18 (though Belorya, or the Latin Valeria, was a pretty common woman’s name in the Roman Empire).
Back in Tractate Rosh Hashanah, Belorya posed an astounding challenge to Rabban Gamliel, pointing out that the Torah claims both that God shows favor to no nation (Deuteronomy 10:17) and that God shows special favor to Israel (Numbers 6:26). In addition to raising a difficult question of textual interpretation, it’s a crucial theological question, made especially poignant by Beloreya’s own status as a former non-Jew who is now Jewish. There, the rabbis take it in turns to tackle the conundrum.
On today’s page, we get the story of Beloreya’s conversion, which means that this story is likely set before she asks Rabban Gamaliel that question. Today we learn that before she could immerse in the mikveh and complete her conversion:
… her slaves preempted her and immersed.
Her enslaved people jumped into the water ahead of her. Why would they do such a thing?
And the incident came before the sages, and they said: The slaves acquired themselves and became free.
By converting ahead of Beloreya, her enslaved people managed to change their status, to free Jews, and escape their bondage. This is, as we learned yesterday, rabbinic law:
Rav Hama bar Gurya said that Rav said: In the case of a Jew who purchased a slave from a gentile, and (the slave) preempted him and immersed for the sake of a freeman, he thereby acquired himself and becomes a freeman.
When a Jewish slaveholder purchases a non-Jewish enslaved person from a non-Jew, they are required to ritually immerse the enslaved person to fully integrate them and their unpaid labor into the Jewish household. This kind of ritual immersion does not effect a complete conversion, but instead confers a kind of secondary status where the enslaved person becomes Jew-ish, still enslaved and only obligated in those halakhot which would not interfere with the expectations of their enslavers. But if the enslaved person independently immerses before their new owner can immerse them, they can effect a complete conversion, making them fully Jewish and fully obligated in all of halakhah — which means that they must be free to fulfill these obligations! Essentially, through manipulating the timing of their immersion, they emancipate themselves.
Rabbi Hisda’s story tells us that at least some enslaved people knew about this rabbinic law and used it to their advantage. It seems that while Beloreya was in the process of converting, her enslaved people took the opportunity to learn the halakhot themselves and then used it to their advantage — liberating themselves and creating new lives for themselves as free Jews.
Read all of Yevamot 46 on Sefaria.