Antislavery Movement and the Jews

Reference: Jewish Encyclopedia

The movement against slavery is one of the most important efforts in the development of civilization; and the relation of the Jews to this subject merits special attention.

J. K. Ingram, in his valuable work on the “History of Slavery,” has well pointed out that “our great horror for some aspects of slavery must not prevent us from recognizing that institution as a necessary step in social progress,” by the immense advance involved in the substitution of servitude for the immolation of captives; by making possible the system of incorporation by conquest and by developing regular and sustained industrial life. Each of these advantages was thereby realized in a marked degree in Jewish life. But it is important also to observe that among the Hebrews the evils of the institution were greatly minimized in theory and in practise, which Ingram refers to when he states that “when we consider its moral effects, whilst endeavoring to the utmost to avoid exaggeration, we must yet pronounce its influence to have been profoundly detrimental.” The pronounced manner in which the evils of the system were minimized and the hardships of the institution were ameliorated by Jewish law more clearly appears in the article on Slavery. Such amelioration is naturally to be anticipated among a people believing in the common descent of all human beings and in the brotherhood of man.

While it is important to note the precepts enjoining kind and humane treatment of both Jewish and Gentile slaves which are found in Jewish law, we must not forget that the feeling of racial affinity, and the idea that the perpetual physical subserviency of any one Jew involved a partial denial of the sovereignty of God, tended to restrict especially the enslavement of Jews. The tendency to abolish slavery among Jews, even in early times, is clearly indicated by the following customs: Unless a Hebrew slave consented to prolong his term of service, it expired at the beginning of the seventh year; a general emancipation of slaves took place in the fiftieth or jubilee year; on restoring the sum paid for his purchase or ransom, a slave received a certificate of manumission; on the death of a master without heirs the slaves were in certain cases set free; sometimes they were tacitly emancipated, as when they were numbered among the free Hebrews selected to participate in religious service.

Emancipation in the Bible.

The Bible, indeed, records the emancipation of all Hebrew slaves in King Zedekiah’s time, at the instance of the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. xxxiv. 8), during the first siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar; but after the withdrawal of that conqueror, the more powerful masters again forced their emancipated slaves into servitude. After the downfall of the first monarchy the right to hold a fellow Hebrew as a slave was regarded as at an end, although an attempt was made to reintroduce the enslavement of Hebrews immediately after the restoration. Nehemiah, however, successfully resisted the endeavor (Neh. v. 5-10). Herod aroused much indignation by reestablishing the old law under which a Jew could be sold into slavery for crime; and, as the people refused to purchase such Hebrew slaves, he overstepped the old law by selling them into foreign countries, to the exasperation of the people. After the destruction of the first monarchy, therefore, Hebrews, generally speaking, were not held as slaves by fellow Hebrews, though non-Jewish slaves continued to be common possessions among the Jews.

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