Slaves or slave-owners?

The Jerusalem Talmud often surprises us. At Passover it’s no different: an extraordinary comment there over-turns our self-image as “slaves in Egypt” and reminds us that we might have been slave-owners there too.

In this reading, Passover commemorates not only the time when we became a free people but also the time when we gave our slaves the gift of freedom.

Learning this part of the Talmud for the first time is shocking. We often believe that we are victims, not perpetrators. In Egypt, we were the weak, not the strong. So learning this discussion in the Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 3:5) might inspire us to think differently about ourselves and about others.

It begins by noting that freeing slaves in the Jubilee year depends on every single person. Rabbi Shemuel bar Yitzhak then relates this idea to a verse in Exodus (6:13) in which Moses and Aaron are commanded not only to tell Pharaoh to let the Jewish people go but also to tell the people of Israel. The command to Pharaoh is obvious – he was a ruler with absolute power – but what command was given to Israel?

Here is Rabbi Shemuel’s answer: “What did he instruct them about? About freeing slaves”.

Rabbi Shemuel is referring to the mitzvah of freeing slaves after six years. The discussion in the Jerusalem Talmud then links our exile in Babylon, hundreds of years later, with our ancestors’ subsequent failure to free their slaves then.

Continuing in the name of Rabbi 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 this rebuke from Jeremiah (34:12-17) was a notorious occasion during his lifetime when the Jewish people did free slaves after six years but subsequently changed their minds and forced them return to their previous owners.

By the end of Jeremiah’s life, the nation had indeed been punished with exile from the Land, just as it had been punished by the Romans in the time of Rabbi Shemuel and Rabbi Illa.

Were we slaves or slave-owners in Egypt? The implication of the exchange in the Jerusalem Talmud is that we might have been both. Rabbi Meir Simha of Dvinsk, author of the Meshekh Hokhma, suggests that some of the tribes of Israel were not enslaved in Egypt and did purchase slaves for their own use (see Meshekh Hokhma on Exodus 6:13).

Today this subversive and challenging idea has almost been forgotten. Every year the children ask, “Why is this night different from other nights?” and the parents answer, “Because we were slaves in Egypt”. Nowhere does the Haggadah suggest that we owned slaves, nor that we merited freedom by releasing them.

But the idea might still be told at the Seder table. The word “Haggadah” means “telling”. It is not a history-book: we have the book of Exodus for that.

Rather, the Haggadah is a record of how the story has been told, in different generations and in different settings. It gives us numerous alternate narratives, some as early as the book of Psalms, and these narratives progress through the creation of the first “wrap” by Hillel the Elder – who used to eat his lamb and bitter herbs wrapped up inside a floppy matzah – to the five rabbis who sat up discussing the Exodus until dawn.

The Haggadah commands every generation, our generation too, to see itself as if it had gone out from Egypt and to tell the story afresh, to compose the next chapter in the narrative ourselves.

At Passover this year, we could teach our children that we lived in Egypt, in a society where being born a slave meant living as a slave for ever and dying a slave. And that some Jews there kept slaves too.

But our thinking was not enslaved to Egyptian morality and we let our own slaves go. We merited our own freedom because we gave freedom to others.

We could tell our children more than that. We legislated against slavery in ancient times. We marched for civil rights in Georgia and Alabama. We stood on trial with Nelson Mandela. These stories are part of our history. This year, at the Seder, 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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