Tosefta Pisḥa 8:18

Circumcision and Slaves
3d CE
Syria Palaestina
Literary genre: 
Legal text
Title of work: 
Pisḥa 8:18

This text presents two opinions regarding the imperative to circumcise gentile slaves when they enter service in a Jewish household. Whereas the ritual immersion associated with a female slave may be a minor issue, circumcision is serious since this procedure is painful for adults and it physically marks them as Jewish. Moreover, other rabbinic texts mention a Roman prohibition against Jews practicing circumcision as a component of the persecution which followed the Bar Kokhba revolt (for example, Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, beḤodesh, Yitro, 6 [Horovitz-Rabin edition, p. 227]; see Aharon Oppenheimer, “The Ban on Circumcision” for an argument which counters the claim that a Roman prohibition against Jewish ritual circumcision prompted the outbreak of that revolt). Later, Antoninus Pius (138-161 CE) issued a decree that permitted Jews to circumcise their sons while prohibiting the circumcision of non-Jews. This Roman ruling is located in a passage on slavery, which suggests that it opposes the circumcision of slaves (Linder, The Jews, p. 99-102; see also Ra‘anan Abusch, “Negotiating Difference,” who explains this decree in the context of Roman slave law during this period, which was imposing limits on the maltreatment of slaves; for Abusch’s discussion and on Antoninus Pius’ decree, see pages 84-89 of that article). Thus, if this Roman ban were upheld and Jewish law mandated the circumcision of slaves, Jews were effectively blocked from buying non-Jewish male slaves who had not previously served in a Jewish household.

In the Roman world, slaves often adopted their master’s identity: consequently, slaves who were 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).

This tosefta presents two positions on the relationship between a Jewish slaveholder’s obligation to circumcise his male slaves and his own eligibility to eat the Passover sacrifice. The first view, presented in an anonymous voice, asserts that a Jew who owns slaves may neither participate in the Passover ritual in the Temple nor eat the Passover sacrifice if he had not circumcised his male slaves and his female slaves had not performed ritual immersion (for another possible explanation, see Hezser, Jewish Slavery, p. 37). While this debate seems to discuss a ritual that ceased upon the destruction of the Temple, the actual subject being contested may be whether uncircumcised slaves are permitted to serve in a Jewish household (see also the commentary on Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael Pisḥa [Bo], parashah 15 [Horovitz-Rabin edition, p. 53-55]). This opinion states that a Jewish master is responsible for ensuring that his male slaves are circumcised.

The second view is attributed to Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya‘aqov, a fourth-generation tanna who was active in the mid-second century. He reads the instruction for Jews to circumcise slaves as pertaining only to the Passover sacrifice in Egypt: 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” (Exodus 12:43-44, NRSV). Thus, for Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya‘aqov, male slaves need not be circumcised or, since their status does not determine a Jewish owner’s participation in the Passover sacrifice, this responsibility is not urgent.

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). Such duties included pouring wine and certain aspects of food preparation, thus complicating the practical implications of having non-Jewish slaves serve in a Jewish household. Moreover, scholars broadly agree that the existence of several Roman decrees against the circumcision of non-Jews signals that this prohibition was not firmly enforced (Hezser, Jewish Slavery, p. 42). Yet tannaitic texts, like our Tosefta and Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael Pisḥa [Bo], parashah 15 (Horovitz-Rabin edition, p. 53-55), also present opinions that allow Jewish ownership of uncircumcised slaves. 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 – implies 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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