Circumcision of slaves
This text addresses two questions that relate to the circumcision of slaves: First, is it imperative to circumcise gentile slaves when they begin to serve in a Jewish household? Second, may a non-Jewish slave who has been purchased by a Jewish master be circumcised against his will? In the Roman world, slaves often adopted their master’s identity: consequently, slaves who were owned then manumitted by a Roman citizen became Roman citizens and, according to rabbinic halakhah, if slaves were manumitted by a Jewish master, they became Jewish. As Natalie B. Dohrmann writes: “Slavery can be a site of acculturation, even conversion, to the dominant status and ideals of rabbinic and Roman civilization… [it] provides an exemplum that facilitates a transformation of the slave-self and an opportunity for movement from periphery to center, from thing to citizen, from Gentile to Jew” (“Manumission,” p. 51). For non-Jews, servitude within Jewish households was therefore considered an opportunity for slaves to join Judaism. Yet, the process of conversion was completed only after the slave became a freedman (Hezser, Jewish Slavery, p. 36-39). Circumcision held a critical role as both an indicator of Jewish identity and a component of conversion.
Indeed, several Roman decrees – from the second century onward – prohibit Jews from circumcising non-Jews, particularly slaves. In that context, Jewish requirements to circumcise slaves conflicted with Roman law.
Scholars widely accept the notion that circumcision was a mandatory prerequisite for male slaves to serve in a Jewish household. A general instruction to circumcise slaves appears in Genesis: “Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring” (17:12, NRSV); the circumcision of slaves in association with the Passover sacrifice is commanded in Exodus 12:43-44. Tosefta Avodah Zarah 3:11 mentions circumcision followed by ritual immersion as a requirement for any male non-Jewish slave who was purchased by Jews. As Amnon Linder writes, “Jews were required by halachic law to convert their non-Jewish slaves, because various employments in the Jewish household were permitted to Jews alone” (The Jews, p. 82). Rabbinic texts describe a prohibition against circumcision as part of the persecution which followed the Bar Kokhba revolt (for example, Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, BeḤodesh, Yitro, 6 [Horovitz-Rabin edition, p. 227]; for a counter to the claim that a Roman prohibition against circumcision among Jews was the catalyst for this revolt see, Aharon Oppenheimer, “The Ban on Circumcision”). A later decree issued by Antoninus Pius (138-161 CE) permitted the Jews to circumcise their sons while prohibiting the circumcision of non-Jews. This edict is located in a passage on slavery, which suggests the circumcision of slaves as its focus (Linder, The Jews, p. 99-102; see also Ra‘anan Abusch, “Negotiating Difference” who contextualizes this ruling in Roman slave law during this period, which began to curtail the maltreatment of slaves; on Antoninus Pius’ decree, see pages 84-89 of this article). A subsequent law, attributed to the jurist Paul (dated before 300 CE), which explicitly prohibits Jews from circumcising their slaves, appears in The Sentences: “If Jews shall circumcise purchased slaves of another nation, they shall be banished or suffer capital punishment” (Paulus, Sententiae, 5:22:3-4; cited in Linder, The Jews, p. 117-120; see also Abusch, “Negotiating Difference,” 89-91).
Scholars argue that the issuance of several Roman decrees against circumcising non-Jews indicates that this prohibition was loosely enforced (Hezser, Jewish Slavery, p. 42). Yet tannaitic texts, such as Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael Pisḥa (Bo), parashah 15, offer contrasting opinions: the first requires a Jewish owner to circumcise his slaves without exception; the second allows a Jew to possess uncircumcised slaves (this later opinion may reflect circumstances in which circumcising non-Jewish slaves was impeded by the Roman decrees mentioned above). Under such conditions, the Talmud offers a different framework: A Jew who buys (presumably non-Jewish) slaves from a non-Jew needs their consent before they are circumcised; namely, he cannot circumcise them against their will. This passage does not state whether a Jew could permanently own uncircumcised slaves (an option that Rabbi Ishmael presents in the Mekhilta).
Section A cites a teaching from Rabbi Yoḥanan, a second-generation amora who was active in the third century (died ca. 280 CE), which was transmitted by both Shimon bar [A]bba, a third-generation amora and disciple of Rabbi Yoḥanan, and Rabbi Yosi a fourth-generation amora who was active in the first half of the fourth century. According to this teaching, in the case of a Jew who buys slaves from a gentile, based on their consent to be circumcised, but they changed their minds after the purchase, that Jew may possess them for twelve months. In an ideal scenario, these slaves will agree to be circumcised during that period. If they don’t, he may sell them to non-Jews. Although rabbinic law (for example, Mishnah Gittin 4:6) prohibits Jews from selling circumcised slaves to gentiles, in this case of uncircumcised slaves, such a sale is permissible. Whereas the Talmud does not seem to require the sale of these slaves, since many duties cannot be performed by an uncircumcised slave (such as handling wine), it could be impractical for such a slave to serve a Jewish household. The fact that a male slave’s consent is required for circumcision has strong parallels to a convert who freely chooses this procedure as one step toward becoming Jewish. The twelve-month period may be intended to provide an opportunity for slaves to become familiar with Judaism and, potentially, elect to become circumcised.
In Section B, a case is presented by Rabbi Yitzhak bar Naḥman, a second- or third-generation amora who was active in the mid-third century, in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, a prominent first-generation amora who was active in the first half of the third century. Here, a certain Jew bought a town of slaves based on their consent to be circumcised; however, after the sale, they withdrew their permission. The owner sought rabbinic counsel and was instructed to retain these slaves for twelve months. If they agreed to be circumcised during that time, the situation would be resolved; but, if not, he could follow the customs of that locale regarding slaves, meaning that he could sell them to non-Jews.
According to this source, slaves must offer consent before being circumcised. This condition is not mentioned in the Bible or in tannaitic literature. Yet, considering that Roman laws prohibited Jews from circumcising non-Jews (especially slaves), ensuring that slaves gave permission for this procedure seems logical. On the other hand, when slaves (and, probably converts as well) decided to undergo circumcision, it seems that the Roman authorities did not intervene.
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