Negotiating Slavery with Jewish Law: Jewish Ownership of Slaves in the Ottoman Empire

Abyssinian Female Slave (1878)

Within the Ottoman Empire religious minorities lived in a unique environment in which they were able to live in their community while reaping the benefits and being inculcated with the customs of the world around them. One such custom was that of slavery. As chronicled in various reports and official ordinances, the acquisition of slaves was widespread amongst the upper class Jewish communities, in addition to the other minority communities scattered throughout the Ottoman Empire. Within these communities, slavery was commonly limited to females, who both performed housework and were sexually available to their owners. Most of the Ottoman Turkish sources are silent about the particular duties of the slaves in the household, however the Hebrew sources shed light on the role of the slave in the Ottoman Jewish household.

Slaves, before being permitted to work in a Jewish household were taught not only basic household skills, but also the Jewish dietary laws of Kashrut as well as the many other Jewish practices. These slaves needed to master the cultural skills of both the secular and Jewish world. Despite their extensive training, the presence of the slave in the household, especially with regards to their preparation of food, remained problematic from a Jewish legal perspective. The questions raised as a result of the newfound reality of having slaves living in the household were addressed in the form of responsa (rabbinic rulings) as well as other printed halachic works. Throughout these works the Rabbis struggle to negotiate and temper the halachic problems that arose from the practice of slavery with the prevalent slave holding practices and social milieu in which they lived.

To avoid halachic issues some slaves were immediately converted upon their arrival into the Jewish household. However this seemingly simple solution raised a myriad of other halachic concerns. If the slave were converted, while she would be allowed to prepare food, she would no longer be allowed to perform tasks on Shabbat. As such, it was often preferable for the slave to remain non-Jewish.  However, non-converted slaves would only be allowed to perform work out of their own volition on Shabbat. It was therefore necessary for the slave to know the intimate details of Jewish law in order to successfully navigate these issues and perform their duties in a manner that would be most beneficial to the family. Yet, the issue that troubled the Rabbis most was that of the owners' “right to sexual intercourse with the slave.” This practice, which was common among Muslim slave owners, was understood by the Rabbis to be a societal norm that they could not fully mediate—moreover it was an issue that halacha and biblical stories seem to have quite divergent views on. The Rabbis understood that sexual relations with a slave could lead to various halachic infractions, including the breaking of laws of nidah—the laws of menstrual separation—and the law against cohabitating with a non-Jewish woman. While they could not fully prevent sexual transgressions, the Rabbis issued rulings that prescribe mild punishments in addition to making clear in their writings that the sin was worthy of the punishment of Karet, in which the court does not issue a punishment, leaving it up to God instead; this suggests the gravity of the offense. The Rabbi's opinion differed from that of the larger community, as sexual relations with slaves, from a communal perspective, had become a common if not acceptable practice. For the Rabbis, however, there was heightened concern for the potential for halachic infractions. 

A responsa of Rabbi Hayyim Shabbetai sheds light on the fact that the Jewish community was divided with regards to the population with slaves. The responsa deals with the case of “Reuben who we are told bought a female servant from Simon... and it was obvious that he intended to fornicate with her, so much so that malicious rumors spread that he was indeed fornicating with her.” While the responsa written clearly order the community's leaders to punish Reuben sternly, we can gleam further insight into community from the fact that, while understanding that such a practice was acceptable, they nonetheless judged the actions of Reuben and rumors of his exploits were easily spread. Cohabitation with slaves created a strong bond between master and slave and in many cases the slave was ultimately viewed as being part of the family unit. 

Sexual relationships with slaves were common within the Ottoman Jewish community and were seen to be socially legitimate amongst many Jews and their Muslim neighbors. This symbol of status provided a serious obstacle as the Jewish leadership negotiated the nexus between Judaism and their Diasporic life.  

The responsa involving Reuben is from Hayyim Shabbetai's Torat Hayyim,3 ( Salonica, 1722) and can be found in Yaron Ben-Naeh's article "Blond,Tall, with Honey-Colored Eyes: Jewish Ownership of Slaves in the Ottoman Empire" found in Jewish History,Vol 20,No 3/4(2006)

Ariel Brickman

Diwaniyya Contributor