How could a kind G-D allow his people to use slavery on their weaker contemporaries and neighbors and yet be so strict with other requirements?

  • 4
    Orange, interesting question. You might get better answers if you are more specific about what bothers you. For example, is your question why G-d didn't impose a sort of welfare state so that the impoverished would not need to sell themselves?
    – YDK
    Sep 27, 2011 at 4:39
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    Wild and completely unacceptable idea to western culture: perhaps slavery, or some politically correct term for it, if you need, isn't evil or wrong, in principal! I wonder if anyone of authority attempts this approach, instead of just accepting what we've been conditioned by society to think.
    – Baby Seal
    May 6, 2014 at 6:22
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    @AndrewRichmond slavery under the laws of Judaism is not like the savagery of slavery in American history (or in current reality in some places in the world). A Jew can sell himself into slavery to pay a debt and it's more like indentured servitude. Jewish law requires proper treatment of one's slaves, providing for their needs, and so on. They are not property, and for Jewish slaves there's a time limit. (For slaves from other nations captured in war it's a little different, but they still can't be treated like chattel.) Sep 8, 2019 at 18:09
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    @Andrew good luck with life learning all you need from Wikipedia. How did we all miss that? :/
    – Double AA
    Sep 8, 2019 at 19:02
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    @Andrew Book of Exodus, huh? I'll have to check it out. It's not like I've read it dozens of times and know most of it roughly by heart. So yeah I'll check it out. A real sleuth you are. Real unique source. (Yes, I have little patience for people who don't know what they're talking about spreading offensive lies and wild theories about Judaism on the internet.)
    – Double AA
    Sep 8, 2019 at 19:08

6 Answers 6


I'll start off by saying that yes, it's troubling. So I'll do my best to quote a few answers I've heard, without saying "aha that answers it."

  • Sefer HaChinuch (c. 1300) says "the chosen people have a special role and thus were given helpers."

  • There is a letter from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (c. 1920) where he is open to the possibility that slavery was too baked-in to the society at the time that G-d couldn't have banned it; instead, it was allowed, with significant "nudges" in the direction that it wasn't a good idea (allowing runaway slaves to stay in Israel, freedom upon loss of limb, etc.), to allow for its gradual fadeaway. If I recall correctly, Lord Sacks has said something similar.

  • Recall as well that a slave had to be treated decently, and was given a quasi-conversion and had to keep kashrut, shabbat, and quite a bit more. Not all of the commandments, but a lot of them. Upon being freed, a slave's status was the same as a convert's. When you seriously think about just how depraved a lot of societies were in the time of the Bible, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald suggests that while harsh, this may have been a way of civilizing people.
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    "slavery was too baked-in to the society at the time that G-d couldn't have banned it" - are you serious using G-d and "couldn't" together?
    – Al Berko
    Feb 6, 2019 at 0:19
  • @AlBerko hakol bidei shamayim, chutz miyir'as shamayim. Think yefas toar. "Couldn't" as in "without messing with free will, which God doesn't like to do apparently."
    – Shalom
    Feb 6, 2019 at 1:00
  • I know that you post מה שבא ליד, but that might be very dangerous for newcomers that +1 your answer, thinking that G-d was unexpectedly stumbled by His creation that went awry. Even if that was said by Gdoilim I object reposting it.
    – Al Berko
    Feb 6, 2019 at 9:58
  • Yifas Toar was not retroactive, like "after G-d saw the Yetzer" but seemingly that's the balance that a man was created in the first place - prohibitions and perks.
    – Al Berko
    Feb 6, 2019 at 10:01
  • @AlBerko Would you prefer the phraseology “Given the way Hashem wants the world to run and the rules set forth for it to do so, it would lead to a self-contradiction for this to also be true”? How do you answer “can Hashem make a rock He can’t lift?”
    – DonielF
    Feb 7, 2019 at 22:38

At the heart of the slavery issue are the questions:

  • To whom do you belong?

    • If your body belong to yourself, can you do whatever you want with your body?
    • If you can choose to do whatever you want with your body, does that include sell it?

      • Also, if I'm in debt, cant I sell myself as a slave to work off my debt?
  • How do these questions differ between Jews and Gentiles?

As Jews, our bodies are considered Hashem's property. We were once upon a time free-men who owned ourselves, but we became slaves to the Egyptians, and while Hashem redeemed us from them, we are still slaves to Hashem. As a result, like the land of Israel, which is also ultimately God's property, we are not allowed to permanently sell ourselves, only as 'indentured-servants' to each-other for our debts, and for no-more than 6 years. Since our bodies don't belong to ourselves, we also can't get tattoos or make a cut in our flesh, eat whatever we want and many more restrictions. It's a direct result of Hashem being our Master that prevents Jews from selling them-selves. If Jews weren't already slaves to Hashem, Jews would be allowed to sell themselves as slaves.

Gentiles on the other hand are their own proprietors. They were never redeemed by Hashem, so they still own themselves, and can do whatever they want with their bodies, therefore they are allowed to sell themselves as property, if their laws allow for it. Hashem won't change gentile-laws, but he did the next best thing by making a blanket emancipation for any gentile-slave who wants to escape their gentile-master. He can escape to Israel where, under Jewish law, he would be protected as a free-man.

A Jew is not permitted to sell a gentile-slave to a gentile. If he does, that slave must be re-purchased and granted freedom.

A Jew is only allowed to purchase a gentile-slave if he agrees to be circumcised. Circumcision is an acceptance that Hashem is the only God and it's a sign that Hashem is our Master. Basically, this is a light-conversion, where the slave accepts that Hashem is his master as well. This gives the gentile-slave a huge deterrent, and a real choice of whether or not to become a slave to a Jew, especially since he can always refuse circumcision and escape to Israel where he would be protected as a free man.

If a gentile does want to undergo circumcision and become a slave to a Jew, in return for his servitude, the slave must be provided with sustenance. There is no official law dictating how a Jewish-slave-owner must treat his gentile-slave (similarly there is no law against yelling at or hitting your wife and children.), because as an adult the law can't tell you how to use your property, however, it is taught that gentile-slaves should be treated as humanely as possible, even partaking in every meal the master eats, before the master himself eats. He should never be embarrassed or distressed, over-worked, or shouted at, and one should speak to them gently and listen to their claims. Their main purpose is to perform a service, not 'be your slave'.

  • See Rambam for sources, right?
    – Baby Seal
    Jul 18, 2014 at 18:32
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    As for law: Why wouldn't Tzaar Baalei Chayim (because they are humans) and Veahavta lereiacha kamocha (because they are part of the Jewish people) apply to slaves? Jun 10, 2015 at 0:39
  • @Emetv'Shalom Why do you imagine that they would not?
    – MichoelR
    8 hours ago

I think there's always a perspective missing from these questions and answers. We always ask the question from the perspective of the "slave owner." We don't usually ask, why did so many people often sell themselves into slavery.

The ancient world was harsher than we typically allow ourselves to imagine. Because if we actually imagined how bad the world was, we'd have to admit how different we ourselves would be. No one in our modern age considers selling their children. Whereas not even that long ago selling one child when you couldn't feed the other 4 was very much something people considered.

God doesn't remove slavery because in the ancient world, sometimes becoming a slave was the best outcome. Guaranteed housing and food, payment once you left, etc etc.

Is slavery even close to the best outcome in our day? Certainly not! Just like we no longer have a strong need for brothers to marry the wife of their deceased sibling, or offer a rape victim to marry the person who raped them.... We are so lucky to live in a world where slavery no longer needs to be considered a solution to a problem.

  • I think @ray's answer plays into this as well. Another way to become a slave was to lose a war. Again, in that case becoming a slave may have been better than the alternative frequently chosen in those days, which was to kill anyone who was in the way.
    – MichoelR
    8 hours ago

I once heard from Rabbi Uziel Milevsky that slavery is a necessary consequence of war.

Once you have war, you have slavery. If an army conquers a land and wants to settle it.

The conquering army now needs to get rid of the previous inhabitants.

It now has only two choices - either kill them or sell them as slaves. (Displacing them may not be an option as the neighboring countries may not to accept them.)

so we see, slavery does have its purpose. better to be a slave than dead.

  • A friend of mine asked an interesting question during a discussion about slavery. Is the current situation in Syria better or worse than slavery? Society dictates it is better, I'm personally am not convainced.
    – Baby Seal
    May 6, 2014 at 14:25
  • Sounds completely off. What kind of justification is it? BTW who said wars are allowed? Also if you conquer lands you can set them free, make them citizens or deport.
    – Al Berko
    Feb 6, 2019 at 10:10
  • @AlBerko "who said wars are allowed?" That's an interesting question, but it seems they are and anyhow that isn't this question. Nations had wars, whether or not Israel did (they did too) and everyone understood then that if you were so unfortunate as to lose a war, you might lose your liberty if not your life. (I heard this also from R' Yaakov Weinberg z"l.) You aren't really addressing his point, because your alternatives may not be good options. And there was no United Nations or Geneva Conventions to impose rules; nations did what was best for them.
    – MichoelR

It appears to me that the reason is simple if you understand the hierarchy of the creation.

First, let's familiarize ourselves with the idea that G-d made the Creation hierarchical: some creatures were created of a higher level then others. The simplest hierarchy is ישראל-מדבר-חי-צומח (inanimate nature => plants => animals => humans etc). The humans were blessed with world domination over the animal kingdom and, needless to say, over the plants and inanimate nature.

Who do you think allowed you to kill and eat those helpless creatures, not mentioning "enslaving" them in all possible ways? Who allowed you to chop trees and burn them for your warmth? Those are the laws of the creation. Now, do you want to continue?

I don't think this site allows to go any further, but if you understand the analogy you'll comprehend the idea that every higher creature is allowed to enslave the lowers.

I'll just mention, that at every layer it allows additional subdivision, for example at the level of the Jews themselves there's a possibility of some of them getting to a lower level and enslaving themselves to other Jews.

And, finally, I should remind that we all are the slaves to the Supreme Commander of them all!


This isn't (yet) a full attempt at an answer, but I wanted to add one piece to the story. "slavery was too baked-in to the society at the time that G-d couldn't have banned it" (quote from @Shalom of an idea from Rav Kook). I don't think this puts it strongly enough. AFAIK there was no such idea at the time that slavery was essentially wrong, basically everyone had slaves, and there is a good reason for that: The economic structure of most societies required it.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horse_collar The Wikipedia article mentions something that I have heard from reputable scholars: The rigid horse collar played a crucial role in ending the feudal system and subsistence farming, and ultimately slavery. It nearly doubled the efficiency of the farmer, and allowed a horse (which eats five times as much as a man) to do ten times as much work as a man. Till then, you might as well have five slaves. An ox was about the same, but slower.
When we say subsistence farming, it means that extra people don't help that much; they also need to subsist. You can work more land, but now you have to pay for their food and support as well. Roughly speaking, the only way to become well-off in the old days was to have a lot of people working for you like horses, getting by on the minimum of support.
You can handle that in various ways (serfs, etc.) but none of them is a lot different from slavery, in practice. A fortunate family needed a lot of very much less fortunate people doing the work and eking out a bare living however it was set up.
That doesn't sound too good, but of course we do that all the time as well. It's just that we're a lot richer, so we can have much higher minimum standards for the much less fortunate people. That's a good thing, but I don't know that it entitles us to look down on the earlier societies. We all know that minimum wage laws might help and might just put the store out of business.
I think this point fits with some other answers. @Shalom brought the Sefer Hachinuch, "the chosen people have a special role and thus were given helpers." To me it means, Hashem wants Jews to be able to focus on spiritual matters, and that requires a setup where they are wealthy enough.
Rashi in Behar, Vayikra 25:44:

If you should say, “But if this be so (that I must treat my Jewish servant with so much regard), by whom shall I be served? Over my Jewish servants I have no power; of the Canaanite people I cannot possess any for You have warned me, (Deuteronomy XX 16) “Thou shalt keep alive any soul"! Who then shall serve me?” I reply — מאת הגוים - [people coming] FROM THE OTHER NATIONS — they may be servants to you.

It reads so strangely to us: "by whom shall I be served?". Goodness - why do you sound so desperate? Pour your own tea! What's the matter with you?! But that was their world. "I want to keep your Torah properly, Hashem - but it's so hard when I'm a pauper and every second is spent trying to survive. In every society I know, 90-plus% of everyone is desperately poor. How can we do this in a way that works for the average Jew?"

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