Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael Pisḥa (Bo), parashah 15

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Circumcision of slaves
3d CE
Syria Palaestina
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael
Pisḥa (Bo), parashah 15

This midrash expounds on Exodus 12:43-44: “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: ‘This is the ordinance for the passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, but any slave who has been purchased may eat of it after he has been circumcised’” (NRSV). While this translation conveys the biblical meaning of these verses, in our passage, the rabbis read the concluding words of Exodus 12:44 as follows: “You should (or: will) circumcise him (the slave), then he will eat it (the Passover sacrifice).” This rendering raises two ambiguities: First, is it mandatory to circumcise a non-Jewish slave? Second, does the closing section of this verse – “Then he will eat it” – refer to the slave, who may partake of the sacrifice after being circumcised, or to the Israelite owner, who may only eat after having circumcised his slaves? The answers to these questions directly influence a critical subject: Is circumcision required of gentile male slaves who serve in a Jewish household?

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). As a critical indicator of male Jewish identity, circumcision was a key requirement for conversion; yet, it seems that tannaitic texts, like Tosefta Pisḥa 8:18 and our passage from the Mekhilta, also transmit opinions that permit Jews to own uncircumcised slaves.

Section A presents a teaching attributed to Rabbi Eliezer, a second-generation tanna who was active in the final decades of the first century and the early second century. Here the words: “Then he will eat it” (Exodus 12:44) are understood as a reference to the master who cannot eat from the Passover sacrifice until his slaves have been circumcised. Even though the Passover sacrifice had ceased as a ritual during Rabbi Eliezer’s lifetime (although some texts suggest home celebrations that included meat) and therefore was relegated to historical memory by the third century, when this composition was edited, these passages seek to clarify whether a Jewish master must circumcise his non-Jewish slaves.

Section B cites a teaching that is attributed to Rabbi Ishmael, a third-generation tanna who was active in the second century, especially in the decades before and immediately after the Bar Kokhba revolt. According to his opinion (as presented in this midrash), a Jew may own uncircumcised slaves. This position is based on reading: “You will circumcise him, then he will eat it” (Exodus 12:44) as an option; thus, if a master elects to circumcise his male slaves, they will be able to eat from the Passover sacrifice. The Jewish owner’s participation in this ritual is not contingent on his slave’s status. Is this subject applicable beyond the Passover sacrifice per se to a Jew’s ability to own uncircumcised slaves? In the view ascribed to Rabbi Ishmael here, the answer is affirmative.

Section C restates Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, which prohibits Jews from owning uncircumcised male slaves, since he understands: “You should circumcise him” (Exodus 12:44) as a non-negotiable religious imperative.

Scholars accept the notion that circumcision was a prerequisite for male slaves to serve in a Jewish household. In addition to Exodus 12:43-44, which discusses circumcision of male slaves in the context of Passover, a general instruction on this subject 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). 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). Several Roman decrees were issued on the circumcision of slaves, among them a pronouncement by Antoninus Pius (138-161 CE), which permitted Jews to circumcise their sons while prohibiting them from circumcising non-Jews (for more on these decrees, see the commentary on Tosefta Pisḥa 8:18).

Although scholars generally agree that the very existence of multiple decrees against Jews circumcising non-Jews indicates that this prohibition was loosely enforced (Hezser, Jewish Slavery, p. 42), our text does not present a rabbinic consensus on the requirement to circumcise male slaves. Moreover, the inclusion of an opinion that allows uncircumcised slaves to serve Jewish households is striking when compared to the Torah’s explicit command to circumcise slaves. Thus, permission for Jews to own uncircumcised slaves raises a question regarding praxis during the first centuries in the land of Israel, especially from the second century onward. Rabbinic literature does not record any incidents of Jews who were punished by Roman authorities for circumcising slaves; however, in my estimation, the inclusion of rabbinic views that permit Jewish ownership of uncircumcised slaves – in contrast to biblical instructions – indicates that, at least in certain periods, it was difficult for Jews to circumcise their slaves.

Bibliographical references: 

“Manumission and Transformation in Jewish and Roman Law”

Dohrmann, Natalie Barticle-in-a-journalJewish and Biblical Interpretation and Cultural Exchange: Comparative Exegesis in ContextNatalie B. Dohrmann , David Stern51-65“Manumission and Transformation in Jewish and Roman Law” PhiladelphiaUniversity of Pennsylvania Press2008
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Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael Pisḥa (Bo), parashah 15
Author(s) of this publication: Yael Wilfand
Publishing date: Sat, 07/06/2019 - 20:50
Visited: Wed, 04/24/2024 - 17:12

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