When discussing both a male non-Jewish slave and a Jewish slave/bondsman, the Torah uses the same word: eved (“slave” or “servant”). However, when discussing female slaves, the Torah uses two different words, shifcha and amah. Simplistically speaking, shifcha refers to a non-Jewish female slave, while amah refers to a Jewish female slave. However, this begs the question: Why are there two different words for a female slave, but only one word for a male slave? And, of course, what is the actual difference between a shifcha and an amah?
Some argue that the word shifcha inherently refers to a non-Jewish slave woman, while the word amah refers inherently to a Jewess. Although this might be true in rabbinic usage of the terms, it reflects only a partial picture when it comes to the Bible. For example, Lev. 25:44 discusses taking slaves from the non-Jewish population of the Holy Land and uses the word amah when referring to the female slaves. Similarly, the Bible reports that when Avimelech returned Sarah, Avraham prayed for Avimelech’s wife and his amahot (plural for amah), whose wombs
Rabbi Avraham Bedersi HaPenini (1230-1300) writes that the word amah is related to the Hebrew word eim/imma (“mother”). In his estimation, an amah is a maid who assumes certain “motherly” responsibilities, as she is expected to nurse her master’s children. He adduces this view from the fact that Hagar is consistently called a shifcha (Gen. 16), until the birth of Yishamel, from when she is consistently called an amah (Gen. 21, but see Gen. 25:12). This understanding of amah is comparable to the English term “nanny,”who is to help raise her employer’s children as though she was their mother.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) in Cheshek Shlomo also connects amah with eim. He understands that shifcha and amah are two different types of “slaves”. A shifcha is expected to perform difficult or menial tasks, whereas an amah is more dignified than that and can only be expected to oversee basic housework. In other words, amah refers to a female domestic servant, or “maid.” Rabbi Pappenheim maintains that the secondary meaning of amah (“hand”) is borrowed from this context, because just as the amah provides services for the household, so too does one’s hand perform different services on one’s behalf. From that, a tertiary meaning of amah arose — “a cubit,” that is, a commonly-used measurement based on the length of an arm.
Rabbi Eliezer Reines, in his work Maftechot Ha’Damesek (published in Warsaw in 1898), explains that a Jewish handmaid is called an amah in order to stress that because she is not yet the mistress of the household (see below), she is still subservient to the real mistress and the “fear” (aimah) of her mistress is upon her. Interestingly, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) writes that even after Yaakov marries Bilhah and Zilpah, each is still described as a shifcha (Gen. 32:23; 33:2; 33:6) on account of their great humility. Meaning, even though they were promoted from being maidservants to being full-fledged mistresses, they still continued to act as though they were in a lower position, and did not haughtily assert their newfound authority.
Based on all of this we can now understand the difference between a male and female slave. As Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) puts it, shifcha is the female equivalent to the male eved, as both are truly slaves who are expected to perform a variety of tasks. However, an amah is more like a housekeeper whose duties are more domestic in nature, and is a totally different concept. For this reason, there are two different words for the female “slave”, but only for the male “slave”.
Rabbi Moshe Sherrow offers another layer of understanding to this issue. The Tosafists (in Moshav Zekanim to Ex. 21:4) write that when a Jewish man is sold as an eved, he loses some of his Jewishness, which is why his master is allowed to force him to mate with a non-Jewish slave woman, even though under normal circumstances a Jewish man is prohibited from marrying a non-Jewish shifcha. For this reason, when it comes to the males, both Jewish and non-Jewish slaves are described as eved because both are not typical Jews.
On the other hand, when a Jewish woman is sold as an amah she does not lose any of her former status. She is certainly not allowed to marry a non-Jewish eved. On the contrary, an amah is actually expected to eventually marry her master or his son (see Ex. 21:8-9), and is considered like a regular Jewish woman who is supposed to marry a regular Jewish man. For this reason, explains Rabbi Sherrow, the Torah differentiates between the term shifcha (a non-Jewish female slave) and amah (a Jewish female “slave”).
Turning to the etymology of the word shifcha, Rabbi Mecklenburg writes that it is derived from the root SHIN/SIN/SAMECH-PEH-CHET, which denotes “connection” or “addition”. The shifcha is “connected” to the mistress of the house in that both are expected to perform services on behalf of the master of the household (see Ketubot 59b which says that even if a woman brings 100 shifchot into her marriage she is still expected to take care of certain chores herself). Another word derived from this root is mishpacha (“family”), which denotes a unit of otherwise individual people who are “connected” by familial relations.
Others, including Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) and Rabbi Zev Hoberman (1930-2012), explain that the root SHIN/SIN/SAMECH-PEH-CHET specifically refers to an extra appendage which is attached to something else. For example, sapachat, a type of leprosy (Lev. 13:2), is derived from this root, as is the word sapach (“appendix”). According to this approach, a mishpacha is called so because the children of the family’s patriarch are like secondary “appendages” who are attached or ascribed to the primary family father. Similarly, a shifcha is like an adjunct attached to the otherwise complete faculty of a household.
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