I've heard Exodus 21:22-25 used in support of abortion in some cases, at least to protect the life of the mother. The argument is that if the negligent death of the mother is punishable by death while death to the unborn is merely punishable by a fine (if the premature-birth interpretation is false, anyway), then the fetus must not be an actual person.

Does this reasoning go too far in light of verses 29-32? In this section, if an ox's owner negligently causes someone's death due to not properly addressing the ox's violent tendencies, then the owner can be put to death—but the owner apparently can't be put to death if the ox kills a slave, which instead is punishable by a fine.

Each passage involves causing someone to die out of negligence, and each case can involve the death penalty for the person who acted negligently—but not if the victim is a fetus/slave (again, unless the premature-birth interpretation is used in verses 22-25, anyway). Therefore, should we conclude that a slave is not a person? If not, then is the parallel reasoning used in verses 22-25 flawed in some way? What if the different penalties merely imply a lesser status on the part of the slave/unborn rather than necessarily disproving personhood?

Info: My question is similar to Exodus 21:22–25 Relevance for the issue of abortion. However, my question focuses specifically on the reasoning used in the passage and what parallel reasoning would imply in verses 29-32.

  • who are "many rabbis"? In the linked question, the answer states that the relevant passages have nothing to do with abortion
    – Esther
    Commented Jun 20, 2022 at 20:58
  • @Esther I've heard that most rabbis believe abortion to save the mother is allowed, if not necessary, and that this passage is one of the key reasons for such. In case I'm wrong, though, in light of what you said, I've edited out the mention of "many rabbis."
    – The Editor
    Commented Jun 20, 2022 at 21:07
  • 1
    Abortion to save the mother is allowed, but it has nothing to do with this passage. It is because the child is a "rodef", aka he is "running after his mother to kill her", and there is a command that if someone is threatening one's life, one is allowed to kill them first.
    – Esther
    Commented Jun 20, 2022 at 21:13
  • Although there are some additional considerations and complications, but I don't have enough knowledge to list them all here
    – Esther
    Commented Jun 20, 2022 at 21:15

1 Answer 1


Again, we use the interpretation of the Talmud. Negligence to guard a known-to-be-goring ox resulting in a death means "the owner deserves to be killed" for such horrible misconduct, but instead pays redemption money. (Elsewhere it makes it very, very clear not to allow someone who truly deserves the death penalty to pay his way out of it.) If the ox kills a slave, then the standard price of a slave is paid instead. So no, that's not a proof.

If a master chops his slave's head off, Exodus is quite clear that "there shall be revenge" and the master can be executed. The 24-hour exemption is basically a form of a defense; "I was allowed to hit him to make him work, and oops I hit him too hard." For that matter, if the courts deem someone deserving of lashes and they mistakenly whip him too hard and he dies -- or even in times when it was normal for an apprentice's master to whip his pupil -- in any case where he was allowed to hit the fellow, but mistakenly hit him too hard (or the fellow getting hit was weaker than we thought), we can't charge the attacker with all-out murder.

  • Thanks for your reply! I agree that since Exodus 21:28-32 addresses negligent killing, we can't apply it to intentional killing. Under the same logic, should we also conclude that since verses 22-25 address the negligent killing of the unborn resulting in a fine (excluding the premature-birth interpretation), we shouldn't necessarily apply it to the intentional killing of the unborn, instead looking elsewhere to find answers?
    – The Editor
    Commented Jun 20, 2022 at 22:14
  • @TheEditor trust me, Talmud deals with that too. It is a very fair question, though -- please ask it separately.
    – Shalom
    Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 11:25

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