Gittin 12 - 18
Starvation or Assimilation
The Canaanite slave of a Jew, although he is a man, is obligated only in the mitzvot incumbent on a Jewish woman. What was the attitude of regular Jews to this "second-class" Jew?
Conflicting signals seem to emerge from our gemara and a later one in this mesechta.
During a famine year a slave who has been instructed by his master to support himself from his own labor may demand that his master either emancipate him or provide him with food. This position of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel is disputed by the other sages who contend that the master need not submit to such a demand. The gemara explains that in a famine year the slave is not capable of supporting himself through his labor. Rabban Shimon therefore contends that the slave has a right to demand emancipation so that he will be a full-fledged Jew whom other Jews will pity and provide for. The other sages see no need for emancipation because whoever shows pity for a free man will also do so for a slave, because the slave is also obligated in mitzvot like a woman.
These two positions seem to switch when it comes to the question of a slave who has been taken captive by non-Jews and redeemed from captivity by a Jew other than his master. If that Jew's intention in redeeming him was for him to be a free man, says the gemara (Gittin 37b), then the slave does not serve either his master or his redeemer according to the position of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel. Why he does not serve his redeemer is obvious, since he redeemed him in order to make him a free man. The reason he does not return to the servitude of his master is that this would discourage the redeemer from his noble action and we are interested in seeing him redeemed and not becoming assimilated amongst his captors. The other sages say that he returns to serve his master because we have no fear that this will discourage another Jew from redeeming him, since it is a mitzvah to redeem even a slave to save him from assimilation.
Tosefot raises the problem of a contradiction between the positions of Rabban Shimon and the other sages in regard to what will be the attitude of Jews towards feeding or freeing a slave. He resolves this problem by explaining that Rabban Shimon's view is that Jews who may not show so much concern for the economic plight of a slave will go out of their way to redeem him and save him from assimilation. The other sages say that the concern for a slave faced with the threat of starvation is greater than that of saving him from assimilation and the expense of everyone giving him a little food is nowhere comparable to the onetime outlay needed to redeem him.
- Gittin 12a
Voice and Hands
When some of the sages came to pay a sick call on the great sage Rabba bar Chana they became engaged in a Torah discussion. It was rudely interrupted by a Persian gentile who took away their lantern because it was a day in which these heathens permitted light only in their house of idol worship. This so upset the sick sage that he prayed to Hashem: "Either hide me in Your shade or exile me to the shade of the Romans."
This implication that the Romans were more tolerable towards the Jews than the Persians is challenged on the basis of Rabbi Chiya's interpretation of a passage in Iyov (28:23) "G-d understands her ways (of Torah and those who study it -- Rashi) and He knew where its place should be." Hashem knew that Jews would not be capable of surviving the decrees of the Romans (who decreed against the study of Torah and performance of mitzvot -- Rashi) so He had them exiled (at the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash) to Babylon.
The gemara's response to this challenge is that while Jews were in Babylon under the Chaldean kings -- Nevuchadnetzar, Evil Merudoch and Beltshatzar -- Babylon was preferable to Roman rule. It was only after the Persians conquered Babylon that treatment of the Jews so deteriorated that even Roman rule was preferable.
What is the essential difference between Persian and Roman rule?
Maharam Shif points out that Roman rule over Jews is conditional on Jews being negligent in the study of Torah. This pattern was indicated in Yitzchak's blessing to Esav, the forefather of the Romans, when he consoled him about the fact that he had already blessed his brother Yaakov to be his master. "When you have cause to complain (that Yaakov's descendants do not observe the Torah) you shall cast off his yoke from your neck" (Bereishet 27:40). The particular role of Torah study in determining who will be ruler or subject comes to expression in the earlier words of Yitzchak, "The voice is that of Yaakov but the hands are that of Esav" (Bereishet 27:22), which our Sages (Bereishet Rabba 65:20) see as a prophetic promise that as long as the voice of Yaakov learning Torah resounds then the hands of Esav can have no dominion, but when that voice is silent those hands gain control.
- Gittin 17a