Since there was slavery in the Americas between their discovery and 1865, do we know of any Jewish slave-owners there who observed slavery-related laws of Judaism?

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    Great question. You are not the first one to have wondered about it. There seems to be little information addressing this question directly, but check out this book, in which it is at least a minor concern of the author to point out that upstanding Jews may have been slave owners under the law in the Western Hemisphere.
    – WAF
    Commented Jul 22, 2011 at 14:56
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    For that matter, I wonder if there were any Christian American slave-owners who explicitly observed the Torah's laws for slavery.
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Jul 22, 2011 at 19:11
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    @Isaac Moses, why would they? Christians generally don't observe Torah law.
    – Lev
    Commented Jul 23, 2011 at 15:17
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    The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was contrary to the Torah (Devarim 23:15-16). Commented Jul 24, 2011 at 7:29
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    We know that the laws of an Eved Ivri would not apply to African slaves in America. I doubt any slaves went through a half conversion to become an Eved Knani. What's left is a plain slave to whom, IINM, apply only the laws of the state (Dina D'Malchuta). IMHO the question needs to be a bit more focused. Commented Jul 25, 2011 at 11:11

5 Answers 5


From a conversation with Eli Faber (A professor of history at John Jay College in New York and author of Jews, Slaves and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight):

The only thing I have encountered is a description of how, in Jamaica, the Jewish slave owner gave his slaves all of Saturday (Shabbat) as well as Sunday off. This was very significant because in Jamaica (I believe unlike in the eventual US), slaves were permitted to work parcels of land and sell the produce at markets. Accordingly, the slaves of Jews were able to plant more, sell more, and earn more money than those owned by non-Jews, who gave their slaves only half a day off on Saturdays, as well as Sundays. For my reference to this, as well as the source in which I found it, see the book I wrote, "Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight," page 62. Jews in Jamaica thus adhered to the Biblical prescription that slaves, servants, etc., were to be able to rest on Saturdays, too; see the fourth of the Ten Commandments ("Exodus," chapter 20). The owners in Jamaica clearly adhered to this Biblical command---though the slaves reportedly chose to work on Shabbat.

Based on his extensive research into the matter, I think we can conclude that this was the extent that Jewish slave owners observed slave-related commandments in the Americas.

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    I wonder if this qualifies as a slave law or a Sabbath law.
    – user6591
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 15:08

A friend and I were recently at the Princeton Art Museum, which contained a text from the Caribbean with a blessing on circumcising one's slaves: image of old book at Princeton art museum showing the relevant blessing

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    Jeffrey, welcome to Mi Yodeya, and thanks very much for contributing this fascinating find! If you have any additional information about the museum, the exhibit, or this artifact that you could edit in, that would make this answer even more valuable. Please consider registering your account, to enable more site features, including voting.
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented May 31, 2016 at 15:42
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    @IsaacMoses The text says "Rite for circumcision and immersion of slaves at the time the Temple stood". It's just reporting the blessings found in the Talmud, not indicating it was used practically by anyone.
    – Double AA
    Commented May 31, 2016 at 15:48
  • @DoubleAA that qualification would probably be worth editing into the answer.
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented May 31, 2016 at 15:49
  • @DoubleAA I think it's quite possible that even if it doesn't directly describe the state of practice in the Caribbean at the time, it may be evidence of what was practiced (perhaps to the negative), depending greatly on the contextual information I requested, above. In other words, this answer as it is looks to me like a good lead toward a possibly more complete answer. Are you familiar with this book (Torat Ha-adam, it looks like)?
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented May 31, 2016 at 15:56
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    It is not Torah Ha-adam by Ramban. See my answer
    – marisbest2
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 16:34

I'm going to put some more information out there in addition to @Jeffery Mensch's above. Here's the picture again: Berit Yitzchaq

Slaves were kept in the Caribbean by Jews and according to some estimates, Jews controlled ~20% of the Dutch slave trade. Remember that these Dutch-colony Jews were of Sephardic descent and spoke Judeo-Portuguese/Spanish as well as Portuguese and Dutch. This book, Berit Yitzchaq was published in 1768 (this particular copy is from Suriname). The 1768 edition is available on Hebrewbooks.

It was also published in 1729, with a slightly different text, though the preface to that edition indicates that the text is fairly old, having originated in the Holy Land and come through the Ottoman Empire to the Netherlands. However, that edition did not contain the circumcision rites.

The 'Torat Ha-adam' section of the 1768 edition contains the circumcision rites, for all kinds of circumcision [living parents, dead father, etc.]. It also contains a section for the circumcision of slaves with the title "סדר מילת עבדים וטבילתן בזמן שבית המקדש היה קיים" "the order of circumcision and immersion that was done when the Temple stood".

This introduction is strange to say the least. It is unclear if this was a tactic for hiding or disapproving of the institution of circumcizing slaves, or whether it was a text that sought to justify modern slavery.

Other scholars have pointed out that in Curaçao the Jews did consider their slaves Jewish and circumcised them, while in Suriname they did not. However, both communities would have likely used the same prayer books printed in Amsterdam. There is some evidence that the organizer of Berit Yitzchaq had family in Suriname who did not circumcise their slaves.

It should be noted that as seen in the register of mohalim (licensed circumcisers) printed in the back of the book, there were more mohalim (or at least more mohalim recognized by the Dutch Sephardic community) in Suriname and Curaçao than in London, Naarden, Haia, Hamburg, and Bayonne combined.

However, it seems unlikely that the circumcision of slaves was widely practiced, even among slave-holding Jews. As far back as the Talmudic period, a category of “uncircumcized slaves” existed, with unique laws. This was especially important for the purpose of allowing slaves to work on the Sabbath, as circumcised slaves are required to observe the Sabbath the same as Jews. The important Sephardic rabbis of the 12th and 13th centuries, Maimonides and Nahmanides, both dealt extensively with the category of “uncircumcized slaves”, quietly advocating the end of circumcision. Ashkenazic (Jews of German/French/Polish origin) Jews would buy slaves on condition that they not be circumcised, thus de facto abolishing circumcision. It is highly unlikely that Dutch Jews would have reinstituted the practice on their own.

So were Slave-related commandments practiced in America? Mostly not. But for some time in the 18th century in the Dutch colonies, they may have been.

For those interested in the picture, it is from an exhibit at the Princeton University Art Museum http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/art/exhibitions/1655. (Maduro, S. (1768). Berit Yitzhaq. Amsterdam: Jansen Family Press. (From the private Judaica collection of Leonard L. Milberg. Currently on display in the “By Dawn’s Early Light” exhibition in the Princeton Art Museum.))

For more information on Jews and slavery in the Caribbean see Paths to Freedom: Manumission in the Atlantic World p. 83

There's a lot of work on the history of Jews and their "slaves", but from a halachic-history perspective, see * The Shabbes Goy: A Study in Halakhic Flexibility* by Jacob Katz


My rav says he heard (can't remember from where) that many of the black Jews in B"SD America are descended from manumitted 'avdei kena'anim. I think there was a Moroccan Jew by the name of Lewi (Levy?) who lived in the southern part of the USA then & they may be his freed slaves (there were Jewish slave owners in N. Carolina as well). These dinim are from M. Yevamoth. Jews are NOT allowed to own stam slaves. A gentile slave can have a trial period w/a potential Jewish owner for 30 days, but he must then decide if he wants to leave his gentile master & convert into a kena'ani slave who will then be obligated in the same dinim that Jewish women are obligated (kashruth, shabbath, etc.). If he opts in, his giyur is done in such a way that he will not be able to speak just before, during & after his immersion so that he doesn't announce that his giyur is not for 'avduth, but for complete Yahaduth (in such a case, he'd be a full geir & NOT a slave, but he'd OWE his value as a slave to his former master & there is such an incident as that in M. Yevamoth in Bavel). A 'evedh kena'ani's slavery is a tiqun for him. R. Eli'ezer holds for giyur in general MILAH is enough. If a gentile wished to convert, performed milah, but DIED before his immersion, then he's buried in a Jewish cemetery. Who, then, is more "Jewish?" Such a man or an 'evedh kena'ani (who we say is NOT exactly Jewish!)?

  • Who is your rav?
    – הראל
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 23:04
  • R. Reuven Kamenetsky, grandson of R. Ya'aqov Kamenetsky.
    – Ra'anan
    Commented Sep 2, 2016 at 4:34

Slavery related laws that I'm aware of, refer to Jewish slaves.

There are two types of slavery regarding Jewish slaves. One is when one kidnaps a person and enslaves him. I just happened to read in this week's parsha Ki Seitzei 24:7 "If a man is found kidnaping a person of his brethren among the children of Israel, and he enslaves him and sells him, that kidnaper shall die, and you shall remove the evil from your midst."

The other is in Parshat Mishpatim when a man is in debt and pays off the debt through slavery. That is where all the slavery laws I know of are listed. Regarding how to treat him, how and when to release him etc. Does not have relevance to slavery in Americas.

  • the Torah says if a slave runs away You are NOT to return him to his owners Commented Sep 11, 2011 at 23:58
  • when the original questioner asked about slavery-related laws, i'm assuming he meant releasing after 6 years, giving him a pillow, letting him marry etc... jewish slaves... i don't recall what youre saying being in the Torah. Which parsha is that in? Is it referring to an Eved Ivri? or non jewish slaves?
    – shoshana
    Commented Sep 13, 2011 at 23:43
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    It's true that there are fewer laws in the Torah about non-Jewish slaves, but they're there; they include Ex. 21:20-21 (capital punishment for beating one's slave to death), 21:26-27 (the slave goes free if his master knocks out his eye or tooth - halachah explains that this also includes various other body parts), and the one that Chalutzhanal is referring to, which is in Deut. 23:16-17. Aside from all of these, there is the halachic requirement to have one's non-Jewish slave undergo a quasi-conversion and accept some of the mitzvos (see David Perlman's comment on the question).
    – Alex
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 2:22

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