April 28, 2022

Yevamot 45

The final teaching in today’s daf (Yevamot 45b) was said by Rav Chama bar Gurya, quoting Rav, stating that: ‘If one buys a slave from an idolater, and before immersing the slave for the sake of converting them to the partial Jewish status of עבד כנעני (Canaanite slave) the slave chooses to immerse themself for the sake of full Jewish status (ישראל), the slave then acquires themself and becomes a free person.’
Before proceeding it is essential – especially as we are in the midst of the festival of freedom – to take a moment to acknowledge that our discussion about Jewish possession of slaves, and especially that of עבד כנעני (in contrast to עבד עברי), does not sit well with our modern understanding of freedom, and while people like Rabbi Sacks may be right in saying that, ‘the Torah does not abolish slavery, but it mitigates and restricts it in such a way as to steer the nation towards its eventual abolition’ (Covenant and Conversation: Exodus p. 331), ultimately our Gemara is still speaking of slavery. Given this, to find out more about how our commentaries wrestle with this issue, I would advise you to look at https://alhatorah.org/Why_Permit_Slavery/2
Yet there is an oft-overlooked fact – one which is particularly overlooked during this festival of freedom – about what it means to be a Jew which is, to use the words of Tehillim (113:1, 134:1, 135:1), to be a עבד ה’ which we often translate as ‘a servant of God’, but which we could equally translate as being a slave of God (although I believe that the difference between translating the phrase as ‘servant of God’ and ‘slave of G-d’ is the difference between living a healthy and unhealthy Judaism).
Having said all this I would like to return to our daf because, as Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Spira of Dinov (1783-1841) explains in his Bnei Yissachar (Nissan 4:5), there are lessons that we can learn from here about the Pesach story.
As should be clear, if someone wishes to make sure that their slave chooses to convert to be an עבד כנעני, they should endeavour to speak with them about what it means to be an עבד כנעני before they convert and even while they are in the water. Similarly, explains the Bnei Yissachar, in Bnei Yisrael’s transition from beingעבדים לפרעה (slaves of Pharoh) to עבדי ה’ (servants of G-d), Hashem engaged with us even while we were in Egypt, and He ‘spoke’ with us about what it means to be an עבד ה’ while we were in the metaphorical water of Egypt through the command of Brit Milah and that of Korban Pesach. In fact, according to the the Bnei Yissachar, this is the true meaning of the words (Shemot 12:24): וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה לְחָק לְךָ וּלְבָנֶיךָ עַד עוֹלָם – ‘and you shall keep this as a law for you and for your children forever’, meaning that this referred to the choice to become עבדי ה’ in Egypt which was to become the everlasting identity of the Jew.
Ultimately, Pesach is not only about not being slaves of Pharoh but also the choice to become servants of G-d, and it was this mission, and this destiny, that was a driving force as we left Egypt.
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