Kiddushin, Chapter One, Mishnah Two



There are different rules for Hebrew slaves than there are for “Canaanite” slaves—non-Jewish slaves.  One of the major differences is that all of the biblical verses which discuss a slave’s going free after a certain period of time are considered by the rabbis as referring to Hebrew slaves.  This includes Exodus 21:1-11; Leviticus 25:39-44, 47-55; Deuteronomy 15:12-18.  Leviticus 25:44-46 refers to Canaanite slaves.  Non-Jewish slaves are called “Canaanite” after Genesis 9:25, “Cursed be Canaan; the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”  The major difference between the two is that a Hebrew slave goes free automatically after a certain number of years of servitude, whereas a Canaanite slaves works in perpetuity.  We should note that the practice of owning Hebrew slaves was probably non-existent, or at least almost non-existent, in the mishnaic/talmudic periods.  However, Jews did own non-Jewish slaves.  Slavery was a common feature of the Greco-Roman world.  The halakhah in general mandates relatively liberal treatment of the slave, but it did not forbid slavery. 


Mishnah Two

1)      A Hebrew slave is acquired by money and by document;

2)      And acquires himself by years, by Jubilee, and by deduction from the purchase price.  

3)      A Hebrew maidservant is greater in that she acquires herself by ‘signs [of physical maturity]’.  

4)      He whose ear is bored is acquired by boring, and acquires himself by Jubilee or his master’s death.



Section one:  There are two possibilities for how an Israelite can legally be sold as a slave. First of all, he may sell himself into slavery in order to pay off his debts.  In such a case he may be sold to a Jew or to a Gentile.  The second possibility is that the court may sell him in order to make compensation for something he sold.  The mishnah teaches that in these cases the sale must be done either through money or through a sale document. 

Section two:  The slave goes free after six years of servitude, as is taught in the beginning of chapter 21 of Exodus.  If the Jubilee year, which occurs once every fifty year, happens before he serves out his six years, then he goes free earlier (see Leviticus 25:40).  If the slave somehow earns enough money to pay back the original sale price, he has the right to do so at any time.  For instance if he was sold for 600 denar, and he would have worked for six years, each year is worth 100 denar, and depending upon when he wants to buy himself back, he pays back 100 denar per year left of work.  The master cannot refuse to allow the slave to buy himself back.  In this way, the Hebrew slave is more like an indentured servant than truly a slave. 

Section three:  The sale of female Hebrew slaves is even more restricted.  According to halakhah there is no such thing as a female adult Hebrew slave.  She can only be sold as a minor and when she shows physical signs of reaching maturity (pubic hair) she becomes free automatically, without having to pay back her sale price.  In addition, she can also become free in any of the ways that a male Hebrew slave becomes free.  It seems that the institute of minor female slaves was probably a way for the father to marry off his daughter without paying a dowry.  While this practice seems cruel to us, it may have been a better option for the daughter than the alternative.

Section four:  In Exodus 21:5-6 we learn that a slave who does not wish to regain his freedom must have his ear pierced and then he may work indefinitely for his master.  The piercing causes him to be acquired to his master for a period beyond the normal period of servitude.  However, he does not work forever and his master’s inheritors do not inherit him.  Rather he goes free either at his master’s death or at the Jubilee year, which ever comes first.  At this point, even if he wishes to remain a slave he has no such choice.