Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

What May Slaves and Animals Wear? – Shabbat 58

While it is true that Biblical and Rabbinic legislation prescribed a day of rest on Shabbat for not only Jewish individuals but also for slave and animals, slaves were still slaves on Shabbat just as animals were still livestock. So just as the men writing the Talmud could discuss what women were allowed to wear out of the house while observing Shabbat, so too should one understand what other beings for which one was responsible were allowed to wear.

Thus we read that, according to Samuel, a slave is allowed to leave the house with a seal (of ownership) on his neck but not on his garment. What is the difference? One idea is that his master puts the seal on his neck but he puts it on his garment – and as commentators explain, in that case he is afraid to remove and carry the neck seal but might do so with the garment. However, interjects the Talmud, of course the master has put his seal of ownership on the slave’s garment as well! Rather, it must be that if the seal breaks off the garment, he might fold the garment over his shoulder and carry it out of fear – as Rashi interprets, fear that his master might accuse him of losing it on purpose and trying to pass himself off as a free person [ben khorin, the same phrase used at Passover in the song Avadim Hayinu/We were slaves]. And going out with a folded garment on one’s shoulder is a clear no-no. To prevent that possibility, circumstances that could lead to it are also prohibited.

There is another tradition that slaves cannot leave the house with an ownership seal on either the neck or the garment, because they are neither ornaments nor tools but rather badges of shame (again, Rashi’s understanding). The problem with this interpretation is that the Talmud discussion goes on to make a distinction between a metal and a clay seal of ownership, permitting a clay one. While they may certainly weigh and be worth different amounts, the shame of both is probably equivalent. Rather than challenging slavery itself, the Talmud is more focused here on defining the conditions of servitude and Shabbat observance.

Rabbi Adam Chalom