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Laws of Religion

Laws of Judaism Concerning Women and Men

 

13. Relations with Slaves

 

from the Biblical Books of Moses (Torah)

and the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah)

 

 

Relations with Slaves

From the Biblical Books of Moses (Torah)

 

(Editor’s note: Slavery was part of the world in which the Bible came into existence. The treatment of slaves, including the issue of sexual relations with them, is therefore discussed in the Torah, as summarized below.)

 

The Torah tells about how Abraham’s wife, Sarai, did not have any children so she gave her female slave, Hagar, to Abraham so she, Sarai, could have children through her.[1] As a result, Ishmael was born.[2]

 

Similarly, when Rachel had no children, she gave her female slave, Bilhah, to her husband, Jacob, so that Rachel could have children through Bilhah. Bilhah had two sons of Jacob’s, Dan and Naphtali.[3]

 

When Jacob’s other wife, Leah, was no longer able to bear children, she gave her female slave, Zilpah, to Jacob and two sons, Gad and Asher, were born as a result.[4]

 

(Editor’s note: These four sons born to the female slaves belonging to Jacob’s wives became the founders of four of the twelve tribes of Israel, just as the sons Jacob had with his wives, Leah and Rachel, were the founders of the other tribes.)

 

Slaves who had been circumcised were permitted to partake of the Passover meal, though hired servants were not permitted to do so.[5]

 

A male Hebrew slave is to be freed in the seventh year. He is to leave without debt and his master is to give him cattle, grain and wine. When that happens, his wife is freed with him if they have no children. If they have children, the wife and children stay with the master when the male is freed. The male may choose to stay as a slave forever.[6]

 

When a man sells his daughter to another man, but then her new master finds that she does not please him, he shall permit her to be sold back. He cannot sell her to an outsider because he has treated her deceitfully. If, after taking an additional woman, he reduces her food, clothing or right to sexual intercourse, then she is freed without any payment to him needed. If he has bought her to give to his son, then he shall treat her like a daughter.[7]

    

If a man has sexual intercourse with another man’s wife, they are both to be put to death.[8] If a man has sexual relations with a female slave who is betrothed to another man, they are not to be put to death since she is not free. The man shall make a guilt offering of a ram to a priest, and he will be forgiven.[9]

 

The Lord commands the Israelites that when a town refuses to submit to them, they should besiege the town, kill all the men and take the women and children as booty.[10] (Thus, women and children who were captives of war could be enslaved and the women could be married.)

 

If, after a battle, an Israelite soldier sees among the female captives a woman of beautiful form whom he desires and wants to marry, he is to permit her to stay for one month in his house to mourn her father and mother. Only then may he have sex with her and make her his wife. But if he is not satisfied with her, he must set her free. He may not sell her for money or make her his slave at this point because he has defiled her.[11]

 

When the Israelites defeated the Midianites in battle, they killed all the Midianite men. Moses became angry with the army officers because they had permitted the Midianite women to live. Moses ordered that all the women and male children be killed, but that the virgin young females be allowed to live for the Israelite soldiers to take for themselves.[12] As a result, 32,000 Midianite virgins were taken as part of the booty by the Israelite soldiers.[13]

 

The Lord commands the Israelites: You shall not return escaped slaves to their owners. You shall allow them to live among you wherever they choose. You shall not oppress them.[14]

 

 

Relations with Slaves

Jewish Law (Halakha) from the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah)

 

(Editor’s note: Slavery was part of the world in which Jewish Law was developed. The treatment of slaves, including the issue of sexual relations with them, is, therefore, discussed by Maimonides, as summarized below.)

 

A betrothal* between a Jewish man or woman and a non-Jew or a slave is not valid.[15] If a man betroths a female slave on the stipulation that she will continue to perform tasks for him as a slave would, this stipulation is not valid.  He may no longer order her to perform the tasks of a slave.[16]

 

Slaves, like women, are not permitted to be witnesses in legal cases.[17]         

 

When a woman who owns a female slave gets married, the children that the slave may have after the marriage belong to the woman's husband. If they divorce, she may buy the children of her slave back.[18]

 

When one parent is a Jew and the other parent is a slave, the father has no effect on the status of the child; the mother's status alone determines the status of the child.[19] Thus, the child of a Jewish woman and a male slave is a legitimate Jew.[20] The fact that a slave fathers a child has no effect on the status of the child, which will be the same as the status of the mother.[21]

 

Similarly, the child of a Jewish father and a female slave is a slave, like its mother.[22] If a man and his female slave have a son, the son is a slave unless it is clearly demonstrated that his mother had been emancipated before the child was born.[23] If, in such a case, the father treats the child as if it were his son or he says that the mother was freed before the child was born, then the child is to be considered as his son for the purpose of inheritance of his estate. This applies only if the father is a scholar of the Torah or is otherwise proven to be an honorable man and strict observer of religious laws. Even so, the child may not marry a Jewish woman unless proof is presented that the mother had been freed before he was born. If the father is an ordinary man, the child is a slave and his biological father's other sons may sell him even if the father says that the child's mother was freed before he was born.[24]

 

 

When a slave is purchased from a non-Jew, the slave is given the option of following a limited number of the commandments of Jewish religious law and, for a male, becoming circumcised. If the slave agrees then the slave undergoes immersion in a mikveh. If the slave does not agree, then after one year the slave is to be sold to a non-Jew.[25]

 

A slave who has been thus immersed, and for a male, circumcised, is no longer considered to be a heathen and the prohibitions that pertain to heathens no longer apply. The slave is, at the same time, not yet a Jew, so relations forbidden to Jews are not forbidden to the slave.  As a result, the slave is permitted to have sexual intercourse and to marry his mother, sister or daughter.[26] A male slave is, however, forbidden from having sexual intercourse with another male or with an animal, for these prohibitions apply to everyone. Maimonides says that his view is that any man or animal who does this is to be executed.[27] Other than that, slaves may have sexual intercourse with any other slave because there is no concept of marriage among slaves. In this way, slaves are like animals. A man may give his female slave to a male slave, or to two male slaves, whether the male slaves belong to him or not.[28]

 

Although a female slave who has been immersed in the waters of a mikveh and who has agreed to follow the commandments that slaves of Jews are required to follow is no longer a heathen, she is still not a Jew. Therefore, a free Jewish man is forbidden from having sexual intercourse with her, whether or not he is her owner. If he has such intercourse, he is liable for a flogging for disobedience for having intercourse with a non-Jewish woman rather than a flogging for violation of the Torah. If, however, she is given to a Jewish slave, he is permitted to have sexual intercourse with her even though she is not Jewish.[29]

 

Although a female slave who has undergone immersion and agreed to follow the commandments specified for such a person is not a Jew, she is also no longer a heathen.  Therefore, a Jewish man may marry her without being liable for a flogging. Also, a zealot may not kill a Jewish man for having sexual intercourse with her in public, as would be called for if she were a heathen.

 

A freed slave (who has been immersed in the waters of a mikveh and who has agreed to follow the commandments that slaves of Jews a required to follow) becomes a Jew in all respects, including the ability to marry a Jew.[30] A freed slave becomes a Jew in this manner even without accepting all the commandments of the Torah.[31]

 

When a slave is freed, those people who were his relatives during his slavery are no longer considered to be his relatives.  Therefore, he is now permitted to have sexual intercourse or marry his mother, his sister, his daughter or any other woman he was related to before he was freed.[32] A freed slave is like a convert to Judaism, and those who are forbidden to a convert for sexual intercourse or marriage are forbidden to the freed slave; those permitted to the convert are permitted to the freed slave.[33]

 

A woman should not acquire a male slave, even a minor, because of suspicion that she will have sexual intercourse with him.[34] Maimonides gives his personal opinion that this applies only to male slaves nine years old or older.[35] (Sexual intercourse with a male less than nine years old does not count as sexual intercourse.[36])

 

 

*Betrothal: In the historical times being described by Maimonides, two separate steps were required to achieve a full marriage. The first step, kiddushin or erusin, is the consecration of the woman to the man and is referred to in our texts as "betrothal." The reversal of this process required a get (a bill of divorce). A man was not responsible for supporting a woman who was betrothed to him.[37] Also, after betrothal the couple was not permitted to have sexual relations until the finalization of the marriage (nisu'in) even if the betrothal had been carried out through sexual intercourse.[38]

The marriage was finalized by nisu'in --the woman moving into the man's house to live there. In the times being described by Maimonides, this second step might have occurred one year after the betrothal.[39]

In the present era, both steps, betrothal (kiddushin) and finalization of the marriage (nisu'in), occur in a single ceremony when the couple marries under the chuppah -- the wedding canopy that symbolizes the couple's home.

________________

 

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Abbreviations used in footnotes:

Gen: The Biblical book of Genesis.

Exod: The Biblical book of Exodus.

Lev: The Biblical book of Leviticus.

Num: The Biblical Book of Numbers.

Deut: The Biblical Book of Deuteronomy.

 

MT:  The Mishneh Torah of Maimonides (Code of Maimonides). The names of the specific books and treatises within each book are given according to the Yale University Press translation and also the Moznaim/Touger Hebrew transliterations to facilitate locating the texts posted here.

F:  indicates page numbers in the Feldheim Publishers, Ltd., translation of Book 1 of the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, the Book of Knowledge.

M:  indicates page numbers in the relevant volume of the Moznaim Publishing Corporation’s Touger translation. (Some of the books of Mishneh Torah are published in several volumes by Moznaim, so the Moznaim volume numbers do not correspond to the Book numbers of Maimonides’ work.)

Y:  indicates page numbers in the translation of the Yale University Press Judaica Series.

 

●  The sources cited are described on the page Source Texts Used for Laws of Judaism.

 



[1] Gen 16:1-4

[2] Gen 16:15

[3] Gen 30:1-8

[4] Gen 30:9-13

[5] Ex 12:43-45

[6] Ex 21:2-6; Deut 15:12-18

[7] Ex 21:7-11

[8] Lev 20:10

[9] Lev 19:20-22

[10] Deut 20:10-14

[11] Deut 21:10-14

[12] Num 31:1-18

[13] Num 31:32-35

[14] Deut 23:15-16

[15] MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 1 on Marriage, Ishut; Chapter 4, sec 15 (pages 50-52M 26-27Y); Chapter 4, sec 8 (pages 48M 25Y)

[16] MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 1 on Marriage, Ishut; Chapter 6, sec 10 (pages 74-76M 39Y)

[17] MT Book 14, The Book of Judges, Sefer Shoftim, Treatise 2 Evidence, Edut, Chapter 9, sec 1 (pages 250M 100Y)

[18] MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 1 on Marriage, Ishut; Chapter 22, sec 25 (pages 290M 141Y)

[19] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 15, sec 4  (pages 184M 98Y)

[20] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 15, sec 3  (pages 182-184M 97-98Y)

[21] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 15, sec 4  (pages 184M 98Y)

[22] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 15, sec 4  (pages 184M 98Y)

[23] MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 2 on Divorce, Gerushin; Chapter 10, sec 19 (pages 184-186M 236-237Y)

[24] MT Book 13, The Book of Civil Laws, Sefer Mishpatim; Treatise on Inheritance, Nachalot; Chapter 4, sec 6 (pages 672-674M 271-272Y)

[25] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 14, sec 9  (pages 176M 94Y)

[26] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 14, sec 17  (pages 180M 96Y)

[27] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 14, sec 18 (pages 180M 96Y)

[28] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 14, sec 19  (pages 180M 96Y)

[29] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 12, sec 11 (pages 154M 83Y) 

[30] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 12, sec 17  (pages 156M 84Y)

[31] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 13, sec 12  (pages 166M 89Y)

[32] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 14, sec 11  (pages 176-178M 94Y)

[33] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 14, sec 19  (pages 180M 96Y)

[34] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 22, sec 16 (pages 276M 144Y)

[35] MT Book 12, The Book of Acquisition, Sefer Kinyan; Treatise 5 on Slaves, Avadim; Chapter 9, sec 6 (pages 722-724M 280-281Y)

[36] MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 1 on Marriage, Ishut; Chapter 11, sec 3 (pages 132M 68Y)

[37] Translator's note 4 to Moznaim translation of MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 1 on Marriage, Ishut; Chapter 10, sec 1 (page 119M). Translator's Introduction to Yale translation of MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim (page xxxivY)

[38] MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 1 on Marriage, Ishut; Chapter 10, sec 1 (pages 118M 61Y)

[39] Translator's note 4 to Moznaim translation of MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 1 on Marriage, Ishut; Chapter 10, sec 1 (page 119M). Translator's Introduction to Yale translation of MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim (page xxxivY)