Circumcision of slaves
360 CE to 400 CE
Hebrew and Aramaic
Title of work:
Yevamot 8:1, 8d (part 2)
Thematic keywords in English:
This text addresses the forced circumcision of slaves (for details on slavery as an opportunity to join Judaism and whether circumcising slaves was mandatory, see the commentary on Jerusalem Talmud Yevamot 8:1, 8d ).
From the second century onward, several Roman laws were issued to prohibit the circumcision of slaves (for more details, see Jerusalem Talmud Yevamot 8:1, 8d ). Scholars argue that the apparent need to issue multiple decrees against the circumcision of non-Jews (and especially slaves) indicates that this prohibition was not firmly 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 complicated by the Roman decrees mentioned above). The subject of circumcision being contingent on slaves’ consent first appears in the Jerusalem Talmud.
Section A cites a teaching that discusses the biblical instruction to circumcise male slaves before participating in the Passover sacrifice: “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: This is the ordinance for the Passover: no foreigner shall eat of it but any slave man who has been purchased – you should circumcise him, then he may eat of it” (Exodus 12:43-44, based on NRSV; italics added). While tannaitic treatment of these verses, such as Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael Pisḥa (Bo), parashah 15, reflect a disagreement over the permissibility for uncircumcised slaves to serve within a Jewish household, here the issue is forced circumcision. This teaching explains that, whereas one shall circumcise an adult slave (‘eved ’ish) against his will, one cannot circumcise a “son who is a man” (ben ’ish)without his consent. This latter term, which is understood as an adult male who is not slave, might hypothetically pertain to a father who converts then wants to circumcise his adult son. This passage (A), therefore permits a master to circumcise his slave against his will.
Section B cites a teaching that is attributed to Rabbi Hoshaya. Two prominent sages had this name: a first-generation amora who was active in the first half of the third century; and, a third-generation amora who was active in the late third- and early fourth centuries. This teaching was transmitted by Rabbi Abbahu, a third-generation amora who was active circa the late third century, and Rabbi Eleazar, a second-generation amora who was active in the latter half of the third century. Rabbi Hoshaya distinguishes between two categories of adult men who may be subject to circumcision. The first is drawn from Exodus 12:43-44: “… slave man who has been purchased – you should circumcise him …” (based on NRSV; italics added). Here an adult male slave is to be circumcised by his owner, without consideration of his will. The second category discusses an adult son whose father cannot circumcise him against his will. Since Jewish law requires fathers to circumcise their sons on the eighth day of life, this case involving an uncircumcised adult son may actually refer to converts (Hezser, “The Social Status,” p. 109). If so, a male convert cannot compel his adult son to be circumcised; which is to say, neither can he force him to convert.
In the Roman world, fathers and slave owners held authority over their sons and slaves, respectively: a child was under the potestas (“power” or “faculty”) of his father or the paterfamilias (the head of the family), even as an adult. A master had nearly unlimited power over slaves: “As property, slaves could be bought, sold, cherished, abused, or destroyed depending on the whims of their owners” (Perry, Gender, p. 19). Yet, according to this Talmudic passage, when considering adult men (whether slave or son) only a master could force his slave to be circumcised against his will. However, as mentioned above, Roman law explicitly prohibited the circumcision of non-Jews, especially slaves, whereas the Bible explicitly requires the circumcision of male slaves.
In Section C, the Talmud introduces the topic of consent in relation to circumcising slaves and the potentially problematic implications of forcing circumcision via a statement by Rabbi Yasa (or perhaps Rabbi Yosi, a fourth-generation amora who was active in the first half of the fourth century). This teaching is transmitted by Rabbi Hyla (or Eyla), a third-generation amora who was active in the late third- and early fourth centuries. In this passage, the Talmud negotiates between the biblical requirement to circumcise slaves and a rabbinic teaching that describes the possibility of purchasing slaves with a stipulation that they will not be circumcised. The Talmud therefore explains that, if such an agreement preceded their purchase, these slaves do not belong to the “adult male slave” category, whom the owner should circumcise irrespective of the slave’s will; rather, they belong to the “adult son” category, who cannot be circumcised without their consent. By placing certain male slaves in the “adult son” category, the Talmud undermines the biblical instruction to circumcise slaves. This position seems to evidence fourth-century realities – much as Section C reflects a later editorial construction, which conveys traditions that are attributed to sages who were active in the late third- and early fourth centuries – and, thus, responds to the context of fourth-century Christian Rome and its imperial legislation (Hezser, Jewish Slavery, p. 40-41). If this is so, in addition to the decrees mentioned above, we should also take into account Constantine I’s law of October 21, 335 CE, which prohibits the circumcision of non-Jewish slaves (particularly Christians) who were bought by Jews (see CTh XVI.9.1 and, for the full text of this law, Sirm. 4). According to this ruling, Christians (and perhaps others) who were purchased and circumcised by Jewish masters were to be freed (Linder, The Jews, p. 138-144).
Another law that has been attributed to Constantine I or Constantine II (see the revised dating proposed by Roland Delmaire in Les lois religieuses des empereurs romains de Constantin à Theodose II. 1st volume. Code Théodosien. Livre XVI, p. 368, n. 1; 378; 420-421; 486-488), prohibited Jews from proselytizing non-Jewish slaves:
“If someone of the Jews shall believe that he should buy a slave of another sect or nation, the slave shall be immediately vindicated to the fisc; but if he shall circumcise the purchased slave, not only shall he suffer the loss of the slave, but he shall be punished, indeed, by capital punishment. But if a Jew shall not hesitate to purchase slaves who are associated in the venerable faith, all those found with him shall be immediately taken away, and he shall be deprived, in no time at all, of the possession of those men who are Christians” (CTh XVI.9.2; translation from Linder, The Jews, p. 144-151).
These rulings indicate that slaves’ consent was necessary prior to circumcision (and, eventually, conversion), lest their Jewish masters be denounced to the Roman authorities. Thus, while Sections A and B, following the biblical verse, maintain that slaves should be circumcised – by force if necessary – but not sons, Section C applies both categories “the one who is a slave” and “the one who is a son” to slaves. This teaching reads the case of a slave who was bought on the condition that he avoid circumcision as “the one who is a son”; therefore, he cannot be compelled to undergo circumcision. Thus, for an uncircumcised slave, manumission would not complete the process of conversion to Judaism. In contrast to Roman norms, halakhah does not prescribe any obligation by a freedman toward his former master; neither do rabbinic texts presume further contact between these parties.
Thus, we see that this Talmudic source addresses a reality in which circumcising slaves who served Jewish households without their consent was problematic, perhaps nearly impossible. Thus, the standing of slaves who were circumcised came closer to the status of converts since this procedure had become a volitional act by converts and slaves alike.