Slaves or Slave-Owners?

An extraordinary comment in the Jerusalem Talmud over-turns our self-image as “slaves in Egypt” and reminds us that we might have been slave-owners too in Egypt.  It suggests that Passover commemorates not only the day when we became a free people but also the day when we freed our own slaves.

And, more disturbingly, it connects our subsequent exile from the Land of Israel, hundreds of years later, to our ancestors’ failure to free their slaves at a later time.

Today our minds have become so focused on habitual, historic narratives and self-images that we find it difficult to listen to others’ narratives and to see others’ images of us.  So, as we celebrate Passover again, the festival of our freedom, this comment from the Jerusalem Talmud deserves a closer look. 

An anonymous Talmudic voice in Rosh Hashanah 3: 5 notes that freeing slaves in the Jubilee year depends on every single person. Rav Shmuel then relates this idea, in the name of Rav Yitzhak, to a verse in Exodus (6:13) where Moses and Aaron are commanded to instruct not only Pharaoh, king of Egypt, but also the people of Israel to release the Jewish people from slavery.  The instruction to Pharaoh is obvious but what instruction was given to the people of Israel?

Here’s Rav Yitzhak’s answer:  “What did he instruct them about?  About freeing slaves”.

The Talmud then brings a similar statement from Rav Ila, “Israel was only ever punished because of not freeing slaves.  This is the meaning of the words of Jeremiah who said, “On the day that I brought your ancestors out of Egypt I made an agreement with them that they would let their slaves go free after six years.  And your ancestors did not listen to me . . .”

The historical context of Jeremiah’s diatribe (34:13-14) was a notorious occasion during his lifetime when the people did free slaves after six years but subsequently forced them to return to their previous owners.  And, by the end of his life, the nation had indeed been punished with exile from the Land.

Were we slaves or slave-masters in Egypt?  The implication of the exchange in the Jerusalem Talmud is that we might have been both.  An early 20th-century commentator, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, suggests that some of the tribes of Israel were not enslaved in Egypt and, indeed, purchased slaves from the Egyptians for their own use (see the Meshech Hochma on Exodus 6:13).

Learning these ideas for the first time is shocking.  Not only do they ring true but also they challenge all our narratives about ourselves. We were victims, not perpetrators.  We didn’t keep slaves.  We were slaves.

Every year the children ask at the Seder, “Why is this night different from other nights?” and the father never answers, “Because we freed the slaves we kept in Egypt”. The idea that we only merited to be released after we had released our own slaves is not in the Haggada.

But the idea might still be told. The word “Haggada”, the name of the book we read at the Passover Seder meal, means “telling”.  It is not a history-book: we have the book of Exodus for that.  The Haggada is a record of how the story has been told in different generations and in different settings.  It gives us multiple narratives, from the creation of the first “wrap” by Hillel the Elder – who used to eat his lamb and bitter herbs wrapped up inside a floppy matza – to the five rabbis who sat up discussing the Exodus until dawn.

And every generation, our generation included, is commanded to see itself as if it had gone out from Egypt and to tell the story afresh.

At Passover this year, we could tell our children that when we lived in Egypt, in a society where a slave was always a slave for life, we let our own slaves go. We could tell our children that we merited freedom because we let others go free.

We could tell our children more than that. We marched for civil rights in the South of the USA. We were on trial with Nelson Mandela.  These are our narratives too.  This year at Passover we could re-tell them all.


About Benedict Roth

An occasional Talmud student and popular teacher who has studied at Oxford and at Machon Pardes.
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1 Response to Slaves or Slave-Owners?

  1. Stuart Linke says:

    Hi Ben

    I love your drash – excellent piece of research and fits well with my view of things. It’s good to be in touch again via Leo and Jonathan. I still treasure you hebrew teaching back at Yakar all those years ago.
    Please say Hi to Sue – our paths don’t seem to cross these days

    chag sameach

    Stuart (Linke)

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