Some people imagine that according to the Torah slaves were forcibly taken into slavery, suffered indignities and abuse and were treated like objects with no rights. We will therefore open with some facts about slaves according to the Torah:
1. A Jew who kills his slave is liable for capital punishment in court, even if the slave was a Canaanite gentile. The Rambam summarizes (Laws of Murder and Guarding One's Person, 2:10): “One who kills a Jew and one who kills a Canaanite slave is executed for this, and if he killed inadvertently, he must go into exile”.
2. A Jew who injures his slave- the slave automatically goes free even if the slave was a gentile and even if he just broke one of his teeth (see Shemot 21:26)
3. According to the Sages, a Jew who possesses a Jewish slave is responsible for his education and upbringing, must dress him in respectable clothing, must provide a comfortable bed and quality food for him and if he does not have enough of these, he must give up his own bed and food to the slave. (The Yerushalmi states that if he has one pillow, he must give it to his slave).
4. The Torah writes explicitly that if a slave ran away from his master one must not extradite him and one must even take care of his needs. This very “unprofitable” rule is in direct contrast to the laws governing slaves in ancient times. This is an explicit verse in Devarim (23:16). “You shall not transfer a slave back to his master who will come to you from his master. He will stay with you in your midst in the place he chooses in one of your courtyards which suits him, do not oppress him”.
5. On Shabbat the Torah does not just prohibit the master from performing labor, but also his slaves, both Jewish and gentile, are absolved from serving him and working for him, as it says (Devarim 5:13) “You shall not perform any labor, you your sons, daughters, slaves, maidservants, oxen and asses and all the animals in your courtyards, in order that your slaves and maidservants rest like you”.
It is impossible not to notice the high ethical standards set by the Torah regarding the weaker segments of society and in particular the lower classes. The Torah showed tremendous concern for slaves, and this begs the question of why there should be any slaves in the Torah.
In order to answer this question, it is important to understand how exactly a person becomes a slave in the Torah's perception. The Americans used to travel to Africa and kidnap Africans and turn them into slaves. However in the book of Shemot it is written : “One who steals a person and sells him, if he is found in his possession ,he shall be put to death”. One may not kidnap another person and this is not the way in which one becomes a slave according to the Torah.
A gentile slave could only be one who sold himself into slavery (willingly choosing to be a slave in order to derive his livelihood from his wealthy owner), or one who was an enemy of the people of Israel who fought against them and whose life had been spared (he had been made a slave instead of being executed). A Jewish slave is a person who had been caught stealing and could not afford to pay for his theft. In order to repay his debt he would be made a slave by the courts and the price paid for him would be reimbursed to the victim of his theft. (Rambam, Laws of Slaves). The sages already taught us that the goal of the laws of slaves was to rehabilitate thieves and transgressors and to return them to regular society. (Similar to the community service meted out to offenders in our time). The other way in which a Jew can become a slave is if he wishes to become one of his own volition. The treatment of slaves is so humane in Jewish tradition that people actually wanted to be slaves of their own choice.
This is what Rambam writes about the verse which appears in the book of Shemot: “These are the precepts which you shall place before them”:
“The precepts contained in “the laws concerning slaves” likewise prescribe only acts of pity, mercy and kindness to the poor. It is an act of mercy to give liberty to a Canaanite servant for the loss of one of his limbs (Shemot 21: 26-27), in order that he should not suffer from slavery and illness at the same time. The law applies even to the case that a tooth of a slave has been knocked out, much more to the mutilation of other limbs…. but it teaches besides a very useful lesson, namely, that we must always practice this virtue, help and protect those who seek our help, and not deliver them to those from whom they flee; and it is not sufficient to give assistance to those who are in need of our help; we must look after their interests, be kind to them, and not hurt their feeling by words. Thus the Law says: “He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not vex him” (ibid. ver. 16). This we owe to the lowest among men, to the slave; how much more must we do our duty to the freeborn, when they seek our assistance?”
These are the precepts of the Torah and we can truly wonder at these remarkable precepts about which it was said at Mount Sinai: “Which nation is so great that their god is so close to them as our G-d is to us whenever we call to Him and which nation is so great that they have such just laws and precepts as this Torah which I am giving you today”.
We must listen and obey, and learn to appreciate the Torah which we have merited to receive.