The Purchase of His Money: Slavery and the Ethics of Jewish Marriage

  • Gail Labovitz
Part of the Black Religion/Womanist Thought/Social Justice book series


At my wedding, in the summer of 1988, my husband placed a ring on my index finger and proclaimed, “Harei ’at m’kuddeshet li b’taba‘at zo, k’dat Moshe v’Yisra’el,” or “You are designated to me with this ring, according to the law of Moses and Israel.” This was in keeping with the law as laid out in the Mishnah, a text codified in Roman Palestine around the beginning of the third century ce. The Mishnah is the foundational text of rabbinic Judaism, which established the codes of conduct that continue to shape life and worship for many Jews today.2 The opening of the section in the Mishnah on betrothals reads:

A woman is acquired in three ways, and acquires herself in two ways. She is acquired by money, by document, and by sexual intercourse. And she acquires herself by a divorce document, and by death of the husband.3


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  1. 5.
    Gail Labovitz, Marriage and Metaphor: Constructions of Gender in Rabbinic Literature (Lantham, MD: Lexington, 2009).Google Scholar
  2. 6.
    For an introduction to this understanding of metaphor, see George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). Lakoff has also authored and co-authored a number of subsequent works elaborating his cognitive theory of metaphor.Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    See, for example, Dale B. Martin, “Slavery and the Ancient Jewish Family,” in The Jewish Family in Antiquity, ed. Shaye J. D. Cohen (Atlanta: Scholars, 1993)Google Scholar
  4. Catherine Hezser, “The Social Status of Slaves in the Talmud Yerushalmi and in GraecoRoman Society,” in The Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman Culture, vol. 3, ed. Peter Schäfer (Tübingen: Mohr [Siebeck], 2002) 91–137 (particularly 93–104)Google Scholar
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  6. 11.
    Martin, “Ancient Jewish Family,” 113. See also Isaiah M. Gafni, The Jews of Babylonia in the Talmudic Era (Hebrew; Jerusalem: The Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 1990) 134Google Scholar
  7. Natalie B. Dohrmann, “Manumission and Transformation in Jewish and Roman Law,” in Jewish Biblical Interpretation and Cultural Exchange: Comparative Exegesis in Context, ed. Natalie Dohrmann (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008) 52f; and 251, note 35. Elsewhere in this volume, David P. Wright makes a similar claim regarding biblical slave law and the actual practices of slaveholding in ancient Israelite communities.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    The most comprehensive recent work on this topic is Hezser, Jewish Slavery in Antiquity. Other recent works beyond those cited above include Paul Virgil McCracken Flesher, Oxen, Women, or Citizens? Slaves in the System of the Mishnah (Atlanta: Scholars, 1988)Google Scholar
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  12. Dean A. Miller, “Biblical and Rabbinic Contributions to an Understanding of the Slave,” in Approaches to Ancient Judaism: Theory and Practice, ed. William Scott Green (Missoula, MT: Scholars, 1978) 189–199Google Scholar
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    See Holt Parker, “Loyal Slaves and Loyal Wives: The Crisis of the Outsider-Within and Roman Exemplum Literature,” in Women and Slaves in Greco-Roman Culture: Differential Equations, ed. Sandra R. Joshel and Sheila Murnaghan (New York: Routledge, 1998) 154.Google Scholar
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    Scholars often assume that ownership defines slavery and distinguishes it from all other social statuses; that is, the ownership of one human being by another constitutes slavery, and a slave is distinguished from other (subordinate) members of society by virtue of being human property. Yet, as Orlando Patterson has written in his groundbreaking work on slavery, “to define slavery only as the treatment of human beings as property fails as a definition, since it does not really specify any distinct category of persons. Proprietary claims and powers are made with respect to many persons who are clearly not slaves … The fact the we tend not to regard ‘free’ human beings as objects of property—legal things—is merely a sociological convention.” Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982) 21f. Among Patterson’s examples of persons who can be sold and/or owned without thereby being defined as slaves are brides in tribal Africa and elsewhere, and American professional athletes.Google Scholar
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    Thomas Ross, “Metaphor and Paradox,” Georgia Law Review 23 (1989) 1069f; see also the reference in note 43 (1070). Ross was writing about the Dred Scott case, in which the Supreme Court of the United States decided that a slave was not an American citizen: “If a slave is literally a chattel, there is no sense in even asking whether it might be a ‘citizen.’ It would be like asking whether a chair was a citizen … In that time, however, to say that a living human being was a chattel would have been heard by many as both true and untrue—as metaphor. ‘Surely the slave is a chattel,’ they might have said, ‘but surely she is not like other chattels.’”Google Scholar
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    Space limits me from discussing the latter of these points in this article. See Gail Labovitz, Marriage and Metaphor: Constructions of Gender in Rabbinic Literature (Lantham, MD: Lexington, 2009)Google Scholar
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    Mekhilta, Mishpatim, parashah 3. It should be noted that in the rabbinic understanding, the marriage between the master/son and Hebrew slave woman is a full marriage (not concubinage), in which she now has the status of a freedwoman. See Michael L. Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001) 195.Google Scholar
  20. 26.
    Mishnah, Tractate Yevamot 14:1. See also Tosefta, Tractate Bava’ Batra’ 11:5, cited below. There are a few grounds within rabbinic law for a wife to petition the court for divorce. Yet even if the (all-male) court finds merit in her request, the ultimate power to grant or withhold the divorce remains with the husband; the court may attempt coercive measures to get the husband’s “consent” but cannot grant a divorce on its own. See Judith Romney Wegner, Chattel or Person? The Status of Women in the Mishnah (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) 80–84, 135–137Google Scholar
  21. Judith Hauptman, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1998) 114–121.Google Scholar
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    Richard P. Saller, “Symbols of Gender and Status Hierarchies in the Roman Household,” in Women and Slaves in Greco-Roman Culture: Differential Equations, ed. Sandra R. Joshel and Sheila Murnaghan (New York: Routledge, 1998) 85.Google Scholar
  23. 48.
    Named for the rabbi and rabbinic scholar who drafted it. Saul Lieberman, “Ketubah,” Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly of America 18 (1954) 66–68.Google Scholar
  24. 49.
    J. David Bleich, “Kiddushei Ta’ut: Annulment as a Solution to the Agunah Problem,” Tradition 33:1 (1998) 114; emphasis added.Google Scholar
  25. 50.
    Rachel Adler, Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1998) 191.Google Scholar

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© Bernadette J. Brooten 2010

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  • Gail Labovitz

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