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The Hebrew word "'ebed" really means "slave"; but the English Bible renders it "servant" (a) where the word is used figuratively, pious men being "servants of the Lord" (Isa. xx. 3), and courtiers "servants of the king" (Jer. xxxvii. 2); and (b) in passages which refer to Hebrew bondmen, whose condition is far above that of slavery (Ex. xxi. 2-7). Where real slaves are referred to, the English versions generally use "bondman" for "'ebed," and "bondwoman" or "bondmaid" for the corresponding feminines (Lev. xxv. 49).

Treatment of Hebrew Bondmen. —Biblical Data:

The duty of treating the Hebrew servant and handmaid otherwise than as slaves, and above all their retention in service for a limited time only, was deemed by the lawgiver of such importance that the subject was put next to the Decalogue at the very head of civil legislation (Ex. xxi. 2-11). It is treated in its legal bearings also (Lev. xxv. 39-54; Deut. xv. 12-18). The prophet Jeremiah (Jer. xxxiv. 8-24) denounces the permanent enslavement of Hebrew men and women by their masters as the gravest of national sins, for which the kingdom of Judah forfeits all claim to God's mercy, and justly sinks into ruin and exile. While the above-cited passages breathe a common spirit of humanity and brotherhood, they seem to conflict with one another in several points which the sages of the Mishnah contrive to reconcile.

The only cause mentioned in the Pentateuch for selling a man into bondage without his consent is his inability to make due restoration for goods stolen (Ex. xxii. 2); but from II Kings iv. 1-7 it is seen that in the kingdom of Israel the sons of an insolvent deceased debtor were sold for the father's debts, and from Isa. iv. 1 that in the kingdom of Judah the debtor was forced to sell his children to appease his creditors. This usage was not supported by the Law, unless the passage in Leviticus which speaks of "thy brother," when he "waxes poor" and "is sold to thee," refers to a sale for debt; or unless the critics are right in ascribing to the laws as now found a later origin than that of Elisha, or even of Deutero-Isaiah.

—In Rabbinical Literature:

The following account is drawn mainly from Maimonides' Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah:

The Hebrew servant referred to in the Torah is of two classes: (1) he whom the court has sold without his consent; and (2) he who has willingly sold himself. The court may sell a man for theft only, as noted above. A man may sell himself (Lev. xxv. 39) because of extreme poverty, after all his means are exhausted; he should not sell himself as long as any means are left to him. He should not sell himself to a woman, nor to a convert, nor to a Gentile. Should he do so, however, even if he sells himself to a heathen temple, the sale is valid; but it then becomes the duty not only of his kinsmen, but of all Israelites, to redeem him, lest he become "swallowed up" in heathendom. The sale of a Hebrew into bondage should be made privately, not from an auction-block, nor even from the sidewalk, where other slaves are sold.

Amount of Work Required.

The Hebrew servant, Scripture says (Lev. xxv. 43), must not be treated with rigor. This was held to mean that no needless work must be imposed on him for the purpose of keeping him under discipline; nor, as Maimonides thinks, any unlimited task such as might be imposed by the command: "Work on till I come!" Nor must he be put to bondman's work (ib. verse 39), i.e., to any humiliating task, such as only slaves perform; and if practicable, he should be set to the same trade in which he was engaged while a freeman.

Whether sold under judgment of a court or voluntarily, the Hebrew servant, if he runs away and is recaptured, must make good the time of his absence, unless the jubilee supervenes, when underany circumstances he is released. When he becomes sick, and thus unable to work, if the time lost is altogether less than four years, none of the time of sickness is charged against the servant; but, if it is more than four years, he must make it up. If the sickness does not disable him for light work (such as work with the needle), even if he is sick for the whole six years of the term of a sold servant, it counts toward his freedom. However, if the Hebrew servant will not do his duty, as a good hireling would do it, he may, by way of discipline, be put to servile work. The master of a Hebrew bondman (or a bondmaid) must place him on an equality with himself in meat and drink, in lodging and in bed-clothes, and must act toward him in a brotherly manner; for Scripture always speaks of him as "thy brother." Hence it was said (Ḳid. 20a): "Whoever buys a Hebrew servant buys a master for himself."

Self-Redemption Possible.

Either kind of servant is entitled to redeem himself by paying his master a portion of the original purchase price proportionate to the number of years still unexpired; thus if he was bought for ninety shekels for a term of six years, the master must allow him to go upon the payment of fifteen shekels for every year still remaining of this term.

In estimating this proportion a reduction is to be made if the servant shall have become sickly or weakened in body so as to be worth less than at first, but no increase if in the meantime he shall have become stronger or more skilful. When the man has sold himself to a Gentile, however, it is his duty to buy himself free in halves, so to speak. If he succeeds in redeeming the first half of himself at a reduction, and then becomes healthy and strong, the redemption price of the second half must be estimated on the basis of the original price (Ḳid. 20b).

Differences Between the Two Kinds.

While the man sold into service is bound for a term of six years, the man who sells himself voluntarily binds himself for a term longer than six years, generally ten or twenty. While the former may not be sold to a non-Israelite (not even to a convert), the latter may sell himself to an Israelite, to a convert, to a denizen ("ger toshab"), or even to the "root of the family of a stranger," that is, to a Gentile (see above). But under all circumstances, if within the power of Israel's laws, he becomes free, like every other Hebrew servant, in the year of jubilee.

The man sold by the court may live with a Canaanite bondwoman whom his master assigns to him (Ex. xxi. 4); but the self-sold servant may not. The former may extend the period of his servitude by having his right ear pierced by his master at the door or door-post, after which he must serve "forever," that is, to the jubilee; the latter may not extend his term of service, and his ear is not pierced. The former, after his ear is pierced, has another possibility of freedom. The text says "he shall serve him" (his master): by taking this literally, he "acquires himself" or becomes free by the death of his master (see Ḳid. i. 2; Baraita, ib. 14b).

Within the six years, or within the time for which a man has sold himself, the Hebrew servant is not freed by the death of the master (if an Israelite) if the latter leaves a son, but need not serve a daughter or other surviving heirs. When a man is sold by the court, the master is bound to furnish such a servant's wife with food; he having, it seems, the right to her services, which hitherto belonged to her husband (Ḳid. 22a).

The Hebrew Bondmaid.

According to tradition, a Hebrew female may not be sold by the court for theft, nor may she sell herself; she may be sold for a bondmaid ("amah") only in the one way shown in Ex. xxi. 7: "When a man sells his daughter for a bondmaid" (A. V. "maid servant"). The father has this power over his daughter only while she is a minor, that is, less than twelve years of age, or at least while she does not bear the signs of puberty; and he should use his right only in the extreme of poverty, and then as the last resort before selling himself. The sale becomes complete by the delivery of money or money's worth, or through a deed ("sheṭar") written in the father's name. The girl remains in service at most six years, like a man servant. If the jubilee arrives before the expiration of this term she is discharged by virture of that fact; or if the master dies, though he leaves a son, she goes free. She may also obtain her freedom by redemption at a reduced price, as explained above, or by a deed of emancipation given to her by her master. All this is implied in the words of the text (Deut. xv., Hebr.), "Thou shalt do likewise to thy bondmaid." But over and above all these paths to liberty she has another: as soon as her signs of puberty appear the master must marry her or must betroth her to his son, or must send her free. In case of marriage she stands as a wife on the same footing as any freewoman in Israel. By the very words of the text in Exodus the master is forbidden to sell her to an outsider (lit. "to a foreign people"), either as a worker or as a wife.

In conclusion, it may be said of Hebrew man servants and bondmaids that, unlike Canaanite servants, they do not become free by reason of an assault on the part of the master which results in the loss of an eye or a tooth; but, as shown under Assault and Battery, in such a case the master is liable to them in an action for damages.

The Parting Gift.

According to Deut. xv., whoever dismisses his Hebrew man servant or maid servant must not send either of them away empty-handed, but must provide a parting gift. This law, however, does not apply to the following: a man who has sold himself; a servant sold by the court, who hastens his freedom by redeeming himself at a price reduced by lapse of time; one who has run away from his master, and who while at large has become free through the jubilee. A baraita (Ḳid. 17a) fixes the value of the gift at thirty shekels (this being the average value of three cited in as many opinions); and it should be made "from thy flock, thy thrashing-floor, and thy wine-press," i.e., in products, the visible blessing of God, not in money or in clothing. The literal meaning of the verb usedin reference to this parting gift in the text seems to be "to hang round the neck."

Foreign-Born Bondmen.

The Israelite is permitted by Lev. xxv. 44-46 to buy bondmen and bondwomen (in the true sense of the word) from among the surrounding nations, or from the strangers dwelling in his land, and from the descendants of these born in the land; the "indwelling" stranger being distinguished from the stranger who lives under the same law as the Israelite. Such bondmen or bondwomen become a possession, and are inherited by children like other property. But the law limits the absolute power of the master. If he strikes his bondman or bondwoman so as to cause the loss of an eye or a tooth, he or she goes free. If he smites him or her so as to cause death on the same day, the deed is avenged as a murder; but not when death ensues on a subsequent day (Ex. xxi. 20, 21, 26, 27). Another alleviation of bondage is the law (Deut. xxiii. 16, 17) forbidding the return of a fugitive slave to his master by those among whom he seeks shelter. The religious status of bondmen owned by Israelites is well defined by the Scriptures, which make them an integral part of the community. The males, though of foreign blood, whether bought for money, or "born in the house," are to be circumcised (Gen. xvii. 27; Ex. xii. 44), and when circumcised are to be admitted to eat of the Passover meal (ib.). Likewise the bondmen or bondwomen of a priest may eat of his holy meats (Lev. xxii. 11). Neither bondmen nor bondwomen are to be required to work on the Sabbath (Ex. xx. 10); indeed, the opportunity for the "son of thy handmaid" to have a "breathing-space" (A. V. "may be refreshed") is mentioned as one of the great motives for the institution of the Sabbath (Ex. xxiii. 12).

Canaanite Bondmen of the Talmud.

In the Mishnah the bondman and bondwoman not of Hebrew blood are called briefly "Canaanites." They are said to be bound, like women, by all the negative commandments, and by affirmative commandments not applying to stated times only. In the marriage laws, of course, they occupy a wholly different position from Israelites proper. Yet they are at least a subordinate part of the Jewish community; and not only are the males circumcised, but both males and females are received into the fold. Hence it is forbidden to sell a bondman or bondwoman to a Gentile (Giṭ. iv. 6), as he or she might thereby be driven into apostasy; but a transfer of the bondman's services for a short time, or with a reservation of Sabbaths and festivals, is perhaps lawful (Giṭ. 46b). If a sale not thus restricted is carried into effect, the master will be compelled to redeem the slave even at tenfold the price received and to manumit him; and if a master borrows from a Gentile and offers his slave as a pledge which is to be forfeited to the lender in the case of non-payment at a specified time, the slave becomes free at once (Giṭ. 42a).

Manumission of a Slave, Dated Cairo, 1087.(From the Cairo genizah.)

It is unlawful to carry or to sell a Canaanite bondman from the Holy Land to another country (ib. iv. 6); and a man who acquires a slave in violation of this prohibition must manumit him. A difficult question once arose as the result of the marriage of a man residing in Babylonia to a Palestinian woman owning bondmen whom they took to his house (ib. 44b), there being doubt as to whom the penalty of the manumission of the bondmen should fall. "Syria" and even Acre (Acco) in Philistia were, as regards the prohibition, considered as outside of the Holy Land; and a Samaritan was considered a Gentile. The law in Deuteronomy against delivering up a fugitive slave is construed as applying to one who flees from a place outside of the Holy Land into it (Giṭ. 45a), which construction fits invery well with the words of the text. But the servant should give to the master a bond for his value. Should the master refuse to manumit the fugitive by deed, the court would simply protect the former bondman in his refusal to serve him.

May Not Own Property.

As under other systems of law in which slavery is recognized, the bondman or bondwoman may not acquire or own any property. What he finds or what is given to him by others (except to serve as price for his manumission) becomes at once the property of his master; and if he is injured in body, the damages must be paid to the master. He may not marry an Israelite woman, nor may a slave woman be married to a free Israelite; hence the rule adopted at the instance of the school of Shammai, that the master of a half-emancipated slave is compelled to manumit him (taking his bond for the other half); otherwise the man might not lawfully enter into any marriage (Giṭ. iv. 5).

The law as to eye and tooth is extended to all "main limbs that do not come back," e.g., ears, fingers, toes, nose, or male genitals; but is limited by some technical exceptions, as where the bondman belongs to part-owners, or to a husband in right of his wife. As the manumission works as a penalty on the master, it may be imposed by a court of ordained judges only, and upon the testimony of witnesses—not upon admission or confession, says Maimonides; but his glossarist (Joseph Caro, in "Kesef Mishneh") points out that if the bondman is able, even for a moment, to justify his freedom, no court will take it from him. The child of a Canaanite bondwoman by an Israelite, even by her master, is a bondman or bondwoman. When manumitted, a Canaanite bondman or bondwoman becomes a "convert of righteousness," and as such undergoes a second "baptism."

Where the master gives a freewoman in marriage to his bondman, or puts phylacteries on him, or causes him to read three verses from the Torah in public, his action is understood as freeing him, and he should give him a deed of manumission. According to the majority opinion, however, if the master goes through a form of betrothal with a bondwoman, the ceremony is of no significance unless he has previously manumitted her (Giṭ. 40a).

Maimonides, at the close of his section on bondmen, declares that the Israelite should treat his slaves humanely, following the rules which Job imposed upon himself (Job xxxi. 12, 14); and he claims that cruelty is found only among idolatrous nations, not among the seed of Abraham.

Formal Manumission.

According to the strict words of the text (Lev. xxv. 46), an Israelite should transmit his foreign bondmen as a heritage to his children. Though recognizing this principle (so thinks Maimonides), the sages approved manumissions made for any religious purpose, even so slight a one as that of completing the number of ten men required for the celebration of public worship ("Yad" 'Abadim, ix. 6); and they decided almost every doubt in favor of freedom.

A Canaanite bondman (or bondwoman) "acquires himself" (Ḳid. i. 3) either by money—which money he may pay himself to the master, but which must be given him by others for the purpose—or through a deed of manumission, even at the instance of others; for, according to the better opinion, freedom is deemed to be a boon, and may be conferred upon him without his consent. When he becomes free by loss of "eye or tooth," the master is compelled to write a deed of manumission. The necessity for a document is drawn from the words "her freedom has not been given to her" (Lev. xix. 20, Hebr.), i.e., given in a tangible form. Still where the master says by word of mouth that he has freed his bondman, he is not allowed to repudiate his own words, but is compelled to execute a deed (Giṭ. 40b).

When the master delivers to a third person a deed of manumission, declaring "hereby N. N. becomes free," it becomes effective at once; but if he hands the deed to another with the request to deliver it to the bondman, it does not take effect unless it is delivered within the master's lifetime.

What is said above of money is true of money's worth which the master accepts from another as the price of the bondman's freedom; but words (except as an admission of a past act) are ineffectual.

The deed of manumission must sever the relation of master and bondman entirely: if it reserves any of the master's rights it is invalid. But where the bondman's freedom is bought with money, he will become half free when only half the price agreed upon has been paid. Words in the future tense, e.g., "I shall manumit," are ineffectual. As far as the deed effects the bondman's freedom, its mere production by him is prima facie proof; but in order to operate upon property given to him by the master, it must be established by the subscribing witnesses. Where the bondman denies the master's assertion that he has given him a deed of manumission (a thing within the bondman's knowledge), he does not go free. But where the master says in general terms "I have manumitted him," the bondman's denial is immaterial; for the manumission might have been executed in his absence (Giṭ. 40b).

A will or gift "mortis causa" does not of itself work a manumission; but the heirs will be compelled to carry out in a formal deed the testator's or donor's wishes. Likewise, if a dying man expresses a desire that his bondwoman shall have "a good time" (lit. "a cool spirit"), the heirs will be held to treat her accordingly. For these regulations Maimonides and his followers give no Talmudic authority.

Decay of the Old Law.

The Shulḥan 'Aruk, being of a later date, and having been written rather for practise than for theory, shows more fully than Maimonides' code how the old law on the subject of bondmen and bond women had fallen into decay. There must be no Hebrew servant, except in times when a jubilee is lawfully kept ('Ar. 29a); for he is entitled to its benefit. But where a Gentile government demands a tribute from all Israelites, and subjects those who are delinquent to servitude under those who pay their share, an Israelite may thus acquire the services of a fellow Israelite; and similarly with Jewish prisoners of war, though as to these the duty of ransoming exists. At the first acquisition of an adult Gentile bondman by an Israeliteowner, the Talmud teaches that the bondman should be consulted with respect to becoming circumcised. and that, if he persistently refuses during a space of twelve months to undergo the rite, the owner should return him to the Gentile owner. It seems that to circumcise and convert him against his will is of no avail. But later authorities (especially in Christian countries; see ReMA's gloss on Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 267, 4) assert that the Israelite, in purchasing the bondman, may specially contract not to introduce him into Judaism; and that "now and here" such a contract would be presumed in all cases, because Jews are not permitted to make converts. In the same spirit it has been said that where a man owns a bondwoman who is not yet converted into Judaism, nobody must convert her without the owner's consent; for to do so is an injury, first, because he can not thereafter sell her to a Gentile, and, secondly, because she may not do any work for him on the Sabbath.

Ever since the Diaspora wealthy Jews have owned non-Jewish slaves wherever slavery was recognized by law. As soon as it became optional whether bondmen or bondwomen should be circumcised and converted into Jewish bondage, generally they were not thus received. Under older decisions ("Yad," 'Abadim, v. 5) the Biblical rule that the bondman or bondwoman becomes free by the loss of "eye or tooth" is applied only to those received into the Jewish fold; hence though the lack of witnesses and of ordained judges might be overcome, this path to freedom was shut off by the absence of bondmen and bondwomen to whom it applied.

The position is taken by the later authorities that in buying a slave under a Gentile government, the Israelite acquires only the services, but not the body, unless the law of the kingdom permits him to buy the latter also. The Hebrew servant not being an object for trade, nothing can be said about the sale or gift of such a person. How title to a Canaanite bondman passes has been shown under Alienation; that the sale of bondmen does not fall under the rules of "ona'ah" has been indicated under Ona'ah. See also Derelicts for ownerless bondmen.

  • Yad, 'Abadim;
  • Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 267.
W. B. L. N. D.—Freedmen:

In the Bible instances of the freeing of slaves of both sexes are found; and the word "ḥofshi" with its derivatives is there used (Ex. xxi. 5; Lev. xix. 20). The incident at the close of the period of the First Temple, mentioned by Jeremiah (xxxiv. 9), has some significance (see above).


Not until the Greek and Roman period, however, does the emancipation of slaves attain, as an institution, any importance for the Jews. According to a not wholly reliable authority, most of the Jews captured by Ptolemy I., Lagi (322-307 B.C.), were taken to Egypt, where they were ransomed by his son, Ptolemy II., Philadelphus (285-247), for a considerable sum and set free (Aristeas Letter, ed. Wendland, § 22). Josephus remarks that the slaves' fidelity to their masters was especially appreciated ("Ant." xii. 1, § 1). Indeed, that may always have been a reason for freeing the Jewish slave, since as a freedman he could be the more useful to his former master and to the country he dwelt in. Philo gives another reason: Speaking of the Jews settled in Rome, who came there mostly as prisoners of war, he says they were set free because, owing to their unwillingness to break the laws of their fathers, they were unserviceable ("Legatio ad Caium," § 23 [ed. Mangey, ii. 568]). Most of them were probably freed by Julius Cæsar, who was specially friendly to the Jews (comp. Tacitus, "Annales," ii. 85; Suetonius, "Tiberius," § 36). Cæsar owed money to a freedman (Suetonius, "Cæsar," § 2); and this freedman was in all probability a Jew (Hild, in "R. E. J." viii. 33, note 1). The historian Josephus was also a freedman.


In Rome, as may be seen from the tombstone inscriptions, a great many Jews had Gentile names of aristocratic families, from which it may be concluded that they were freedmen of those families. Among them were Claudius Aster, a freedman of the Claudius family (see Jew. Encyc. ix. 475b, s.v. Paleography), and Claudius Jose. The names of emperors borne by Jewish freedmen in Rome included Julius Flavius, Ulpius, Ælius, Antoninus, Aurelius, Severus, Constantius, Julianus, Domitianus, Faustinus, and Valerius. The names of noble families used by these freedmen include: Æmilius, Lucretius, Marcellus, Marcius, Quintilius, Sempronius, Tullius (Vogelstein and Rieger, "Gesch. der Juden in Rom," i. 60). Still, many who bore these names may have been born Romans, since Jews, even without being slaves, frequently assumed names of noble families; for instance, the Alabarchs assumed the name of the Julii. The proselyte Clement of Rome is supposed to have been a freedman, or a son of Flavius Clemens, a freedman (Light-foot, "Clement of Rome," p. 61). Names of Jewish freedmen in Delphi also are known (Schürer, "Gesch." 3d ed., iii. 27).

Synagoga Libertinorum.

The Synagogue of the Libertines in Jerusalem is referred to in Acts vi. 9. Since, however, four synagogues named after cities and countries are mentioned in the same sentence, it has been thought that the fifth also was probably named after a place; and Blass, in consequence, reads Λιβυστίνων instead of Λιβερτίνων. But even in modern times John Patrick (in Hastings, "Dict. Bible," iii. 110) holds that the Libertines were freedmen in the Roman sense of the term, and that they were mainly descendants of those Jews who had been taken as prisoners to Rome by Pompey in 63 B. C. and there sold as slaves. On the other hand, it was long ago pointed out that had the author of the Acts of the Apostles really intended to speak of freedmen he would have used the Greek instead of the Latin word. Accordingly, "Libertines" would seem to be only the name of a people (Gerdes, "De Synagoga Libertinorum," 1738). The Hellenistic Diaspora numbered among its members the rhetorician Cæcilius of Calacte and the chronographer Thallus, a Samaritan, who were both freedmen. Instances of Jews freeing their slaves are also met with. Rufina, directress of the synagogue in Smyrna, built a tomb for her freedmen ("R. E. J."vii. 161-166). Several inscriptions on the Bosporus and in Pontus show that the freeing of slaves was a religious duty on the part of the Jews (Levy, in "Jahrbuch für Geschichte der Juden," ii. 223).

In the Talmud.

The Rabbis often speak of freed slaves, meaning heathen, of course. The prayer at the offering of the first-fruits might not be recited by freedmen (Ma'as. Sh. v. 14). Documents concerning the freeing of slaves are often mentioned ("sheṭar shiḥrur"). If such documents were drawn up by heathen magistrates, they were recognized (Tosef., Giṭ. i. 4). A certain Bati b. Tobiah was too proud to accept a patent of freedom (Ḳid. 70b). Halakic questions arose in connection with the freedwoman Karkemit ('Eduy. v. 6) and with Tobi, R. Gamaliel's freedman. In the Talmud, moreover, the freeing of slaves according to the Roman law is discussed ("Masseket 'Abadim," ed. Kirchheim, iii. 30; see Krauss, "Lehnwörter," i. 267).

D. S. Kr.