Behar: Slave Owners

Shmitah Observance in Palestine, by Chief Rabbi Abraham Kook, 1924

Every seventh year is the shmitah year, the year of letting things drop, according to this week’s Torah portion, Behar (“On a mountain”).  That year the owners of fields must let them lie fallow, and the owners of vineyards must leave them unpruned, so the land can rest.

It will be a sabbath for the land; [its] food  is [only] for eating, for you yourself, and for your aved, and for your amah, and for your hired laborer [who is] resident with you.  And for your cattle and for the wild beasts that are in your land, they shall all come in to eat.  (Leviticus 25:6-7)

aved (עָבֶד) = a male slave or a servant.  (From the root verb avad, עָבַד = slaved, served, labored.)

Slave (noun) = a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them.

Servant (noun) = a person employed to perform duties for others, especially in a house, [or] a devoted and helpful follower.1

amah (אָמָה) = a female slave or a servant.

The list of people who can eat the produce of a field or vineyard during the seventh year includes the owner and his family, his male and female slaves, and his employees who live with him (as well as his livestock and any wild beasts that wander in).

Although the Torah uses the same word for a slave and a servant, whether male or female, native or foreign, in this passage the slaves are listed separately from the free employees who serve the master to earn wages.

Egyptian beating a slave

Slavery is an accepted part of society in the Torah, as it was throughout the ancient Near East.  In Exodus/Shemot, all the Israelites are slaves in Egypt until God rescues them and leads them through the wilderness.  In Exodus alone, God gives them more than a hundred laws at Mt. Sinai, from the Ten Commandments to case law such as:

If you acquire a Hebrew eved, six years ya-avod and in the seventh he shall leave free, without charge.  (Exodus 21:2)

ya-avod (יַעֲבֺד) = he shall serve.  (A form of the verb avad, עָבַד  = served or slaved.)

In other words, one can only acquire fellow Hebrews or Israelites as an indentured servants: debtors who are forced to work for their masters for a fixed period of time.  At the end of that time, they are free.  Israelites acquired their countrymen as indentured servants when impoverished men sold themselves or impoverished parents sold their children.  These temporary slaves could be redeemed at any time by a kinsman who paid off their owner.  If they were not redeemed, Exodus says, they must be given the option of freedom after six years.   (See my post Mishpatim: On Slavery.)

The lawgiving at Mt. Sinai continues in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, and returns to the subject of slavery in this week’s Torah portion.

And if your kinsman with you becomes poor and is sold to you, lo ta-avod him at the avodah of an aved.  (Leviticus/ Vayikra 25:39)

lo ta-avod (לֺא תַעֲבֺד) = you may not enslave, you may not force to work.  (From the root verb avad.)

avodah (עֲבֺדַה) = service, labor for another.  (Also from the root verb avad.)

In other words, you may not force a fellow Israelite to do the work of a foreign slave.  Israelite slaves must be treated like hired employees who live in the master’s household.  According to Sifra, that means their owner must provide them and their wives and children with food as well as lodging, and assign them work in a craft they already know.2   This week’s Torah portion prohibits charging indentured servants for their food and adding it to the debt they are working off.3

He shall become like a hired worker, like a temporary worker living with you.  Until the year of the yoveil, ya-avod you.  (Leviticus 25:40)

yoveil (יֺּבֵל) = ram; the year of remission, which comes every 50 years and is announced by the blowing of a ram’s horn.  (Called the “jubilee” in English.)

At this point, the law in Leviticus appears to disagree with the law in Exodus.  Leviticus says all Israelite slaves in the country must be freed every 50 years; Exodus says each Israelite slave must be freed after he has served for six years.

In the 11th century CE, Rashi wrote that an Israelite slave was freed either after his own six years of service were completed, or on the yoveil year, whichever came first.4

In the 19th century, S.R. Hirsch wrote that the slave who decided to remain with his master “forever” instead of being freed in the seventh year (Exodus 21:5-6) was nevertheless freed when either his master died, or the yoveil year began, whichever came first.5

But 21st-century translator and commentator Robert Alter wrote that the books of Exodus and Leviticus simply disagree on when an unredeemed Israelite slave must be freed.6  The Exodus version guarantees that after six years every Israelite slave can choose whether to go free or become a permanent slave.  The Leviticus version guarantees that when all Israelite slaves are freed in the yoveil year, they can go home to their own families’ plots of land, which are returned that year to the families that originally owned them.7

Then he shall leave you, he and his children with him, and he shall return to his clan and to the property of his forefathers.  (Leviticus 25: 41)


Even if Israelites sell themselves to resident aliens rather than to their fellow Israelites, their kinsmen have the option of redeeming them paying their master their purchase price.  And if no one redeems them, then they, too, must be released in the yoveil year.8

If he is not redeemed in these ways, then he shall leave in the year of the yoveil, he and his children with him.  Because the Israelites are avadim to me, my avadim, who I brought out from the land of Egypt.  I am God, your God.  (Leviticus 25:54-55)

avadim (עֲבַדִים) = slaves, servants.  (Plural of aved.)

Why must all Israelites who have sold themselves be freed, even if they have to wait up to 49 years?  Rashi wrote that “Because the Israelites are avadim to me” (Leviticus 25:55) means: “My contract came before.”9

An aved cannot have two masters.  And all Israelites are God’s servants, even God’s slaves.  Treating Israelites that you bought as if they were your exclusive property forever would violate God’s previous claim as their ultimate owner—and yours.

Assyrian army of Tiglath-Pilesar leads captives


A foreign slave, on the other hand, is permanent property, and can even be inherited.  The usual practice in the ancient Near East was to enslave foreigners captured in battle.

And your aved and your amah from the nations around you that became yours, from them you may acquire eved and amah.  And also you may acquire [slaves] from the children of the alien residents among you, and from their families they gave birth to while among you in your land.  And they shall become yours as property.  And you may bequeath them to your children after you to inherit as property forever …  (Leviticus 25:44-46)

The book of Leviticus does not think of non-Israelites as God’s people.  Anyone who does not serve the God of Israel can become a permanent slave of a human master.


In the United States, what made the difference between permanent slaves and temporary indentured servants was not religion or ethnicity, but “race”.  Until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 banned slavery, native Africans and their descendants, as well as some Native Americans, were seized and enslaved, resold, and inherited by European-Americans.  Their owners might choose to free them, but like the foreign slaves in the Torah, they had no right of redemption, nor a right to release after any number of years of service.  Impoverished Europeans and their American children could sell themselves as indentured servants, bound to obey their masters’ whims only until their contracts expired.

Today slavery is officially illegal everywhere in the world, but there are still millions of people who are acquired or inherited as property and forced to obey their owners.

What if we stopped separating people into “us” and “them”?  What if we had a God of Everybody, instead of a God of Israel or a God of (fill in the blank)?  What if we came to believe that all human beings are holy?  Would slavery disappear?

  1. Both definitions are from Concise Oxford English Dictionary, Tenth Edition, Oxford University Press, 2002.
  2. Sifra (a 3rd-century CE collection of legal commentary on Leviticus), Behar Chapter 7, translated in
  3. Leviticus 25:37.
  4. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) on Leviticus 25:40, translated at
  5. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Exodus 21:6, translated by Daniel Haberman in The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Shemos, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2005, p. 370.
  6. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 658.
  7. See my post Behar: Owning Land.
  8. Leviticus 25:47-54.
  9. Rashi, ibid., on Leviticus 25:55.

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