The Torah’s Asylum Commandment Not To Return A Runaway Slave – OpEd


Professor Yitzhak Y. Melamed of Johns Hopkins University points out that the Commandment Not to Return a Runaway Slave to his or her Master is a unique law in its ancient Near Eastern context. Commentators such as ibn Ezra, and Maimonides, living in a Medieval world of normative slavery, debated whether the asylum commandment was primarily theological or ethical.

The Torah limits the Israelites’ rights to enslave one another, (male or female) casting the practice as temporary indentured servitude (Exodus 21:2–11; Deuteronomy 15:12–18). As for enslaving non-Israelites, Leviticus states that unlike Israelite indentured servants, enslaved non-Israelites can be worked harshly: Leviticus 25:44 states “Such male and female slaves as you may have—it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves… 25:46; you may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such you may be treated as slaves. But as for your Israelite kinsmen, no one shall rule ruthlessly over the other.”

Exodus places some limits on how they may be treated. Thus, if a master beats his slave to death, he is to receive punishment, but only if the slave dies immediately (Exodus 21:20–21). Also, if the master knocks out an eye or a tooth, the slave is to be set free (Exodus 21:26–27).

So Deuteronomy’s asylum prohibition to return a runaway slave to his master stands out: (Deuteronomy  23:16) “You shall not turn to his master a slave who seeks refuge from his master. 23:17 He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.”

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (c.1089–1164), an poet, grammarian, philosopher, astronomer and Bible commentator, understands the runaway slave as coming from an enemy camp (Deuteronomy 23:16): “As they go to war, a slave might run away to their camp, and he is not an Israelite.” This does fit with the context, considering that this law appears immediately after the instructions regulating military camps (Deuteronomy 23:10–15). 

Ibn Ezra imagines that the slave seeks refuge and asylum with Israel because they claim to be God’s people: “Even though he is not an Israelite since he [the slave] came because of the honor of God, after whom Israel is named, and if the Israelite were to turn the slave to his master, this would constitute a desecration of God’s name. Therefore, “you should not ill-treat him.” Professor Melamed’s point is, abuse of a slave reflects poorly on the nature of God, desecrating the divine name.  

According to Ibn Ezra’s explanation, the prohibition on returning the slave to his (legal) master is not grounded in the moral norms of the society from which the slave ran away (where the slave is just a criminal fugitive), nor is it clear what Israelite norm requires assisting the fugitive slave (since slavery was legal among the Israelites). Asylum is just that “God’s honor”commands sheltering the slave from his prosecutors and providing him or her with asylum.

Rabbi Moses Maimonides’ (1138–1204), a M.D, a legal scholar as well as a philosopher, explains in his Guide of the Perplexed: “The commandment; “You shall not return to his master a slave who seeks refuge from his master”([Deuteronomy 23:16), besides manifesting pity, contains a very great utility—namely, it makes us acquire this noble moral quality (pity) namely, it makes us protect and defend those who seek our asylum protection and not deliver them over to those from whom they have fled.

Thus, according to Maimonides, the purpose of the law is to cultivate a moral and psychological trait of standing on the side of the weak and the abused. He continues that the law also helps support the slave and release him from an unjust abuse: “It is not even enough to protect those who seek your protection, for you are under another obligation toward him: you must consider his interests, be beneficent toward him, and not pain his heart by speech. This is the meaning of His dictum, may He be exalted: “He shall live with you…among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him” (Deuteronomy 23:17)

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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