י״ט בשבט ה׳תשע״ב (February 12, 2012)

Arakhin 30a-b – Slavery according to the Sages

Although the common perception today is that slavery is inhumane, the situation of an  is more similar to a long-term contract, in that the slave must be treated with great respect. The Gemara understands from the passage ki tov lo imakh – that some slaves choose to remain beyond their assigned years because they find their situation to be a good one (see Devarim 15:16) – that the master is obligated to ensure that the slave join him in eating and drinking. According to the baraita on our daf (=page), the master cannot eat fine bread and feed his eved ivri poor bread; he cannot drink aged wine and have his eved ivri drink poorer quality wine; he cannot sleep on cushions and have his eved ivri sleeping on straw. The baraita concludes with the expression kol ha-koneh eved, koneh adon le-atzmo – anyone who purchases a slave has bought a master for himself.
The Me’iri writes that these obligations on the master should be seen as recommendations – as good deeds. They are not monetary obligations that the master owes to his eved ivri, so the eved ivri could not, for example, take his master to court and sue him demanding a higher standard of living. Furthermore, the Me’iri argues that even today, when we no longer have the concept of slavery, this attitude should inform contemporary relationships with workers, who should be housed, clothed and fed in a manner similar to that of the master. This is certainly true according to the opinion of Tosafot, which bring a prooftext to this rule from the passage ke-sahir ketoshav ya’avod imakh (Vayikra 25:40) – that an eved ivri should be treated like a hired servant. The Talmud Yerushalmi writes that Rabbi Yohanan treated all who worked for him this way – even his non-Jewish slaves.