Thankfully, owning slaves is not an acceptable norm in our society. We would be burying our heads in the sand, however, if we did claim that slavery was never an accepted norm.
Ignoring this fact would not only be denying history, but would also be burying an asset from which we could glean how our sages viewed those of lower status - avadim (servants, bondsmen or slaves).
The Mishna describes Rabban Gamliel's response to the demise of Tavi, his servant (M. Berachot 2:7). Following the burial of the deceased, funeral attendees customarily passed before the mourners and offered their condolences. Thus after the internment of Tavi, Rabban Gamliel sat ready to be offered words of comfort and those present complied (Rabbi Shlomo Sirillo, 16th century, Spain-Adrianople-Salonika-Eretz Israel).
Students of the sage looked on in surprise: "But you, our master, have taught us that one may not accept condolences for the loss of a gentile slave!?" Commentators explain the reason for this rule: Lest onlookers will mistakenly assume that the deceased was a Jew (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, France-Germany).
Turning to his students, Rabban Gamliel succinctly responded: "My bondsman Tavi is not like other gentile slaves, for he was a worthy individual." Indeed, elsewhere we find Rabban Gamliel proudly announcing that Tavi was a Torah scholar (M. Succa 2:1).
Our sages compare the long-term affects of our actions. The righteous not only merit favorable treatment for their deeds, but also bequeath merit to their descendants. In contrast, evil people not only render themselves culpable, but also pass on hereditary liability to their descendants. Highlighting the enduring consequences of the deeds of our forebears, the sages note that Tavi was worthy of rabbinic ordination, but because of his lineage did not have this opportunity and never achieved this status (B. Yoma 87a).
Returning to Tavi's funeral: In honor of Tavi's accomplishments in the field of Torah scholarship, Rabban Gamliel felt it appropriate to accept condolences for his loss.
It is important to note that achievement in Torah alone would not justify accepting condolences - a practice normally reserved for family members only. Commentators remark that there is often a familial relationship between masters and slaves, between teachers and students. This close connection, coupled with Tavi's unique Torah exploits, justified Rabban Gamliel's departure from the norm (Y. Berachot 5b).
What does Rabban Gamliel's course reflect about his relationship to slavery? The language of the sources suggests that Rabban Gamliel saw his actions as an exception, and Tavi was generally seen as an unusual slave. It is entirely likely that Tavi, and Rabban Gamliel's relationship toward him, departed from the societal norm. But was Rabban Gamliel alone in his familial feelings for Tavi?
The Talmud relates a similar contemporaneous episode, demonstrating the relationship of Rabban Gamliel's brother-in-law to his maidservant (B. Berachot 16b; Semahot 1:9-10).
When the gentile maidservant of Rabbi Eliezer died, students came to console their master, perhaps following the paradigm of Rabban Gamliel. Seeing the students enter and surmising their intent, Rabbi Eliezer ascended to the upper floor to avoid meeting them. Not to be rebuffed, the students followed their master.
The chase continued with Rabbi Eliezer entering an anteroom and the students at his heels. With his students in hot pursuit, Rabbi Eliezer proceeded to the reception room. Cornered by his students and realizing that the message he was trying to convey had not been comprehended, Rabbi Eliezer reproached his followers with a colorful metaphor: "I thought you would be scalded with warm water, but now I see that you are not scalded even with boiling hot water! Did I not already teach you that condolences are not offered for the demise of slaves? Just as when a person loses other chattels, all that should be said is: 'May the Omnipresent replace your loss.'"
Why did Rabbi Eliezer hint at the law rather than spelling it out explicitly? As an educator, Rabbi Eliezer could have employed the moment when his students offered their condolences as a teaching instance to lucidly convey the law that comfort is not offered for departed gentile slaves. Moreover, Rabbi Eliezer did not even give his students an opportunity to talk; perhaps they would have recited the approved formula. Instead, Rabbi Eliezer flees from confrontation with his disciples, as if he prefers not to talk about the issue.
During the discussion in the beit midrash (study hall), Rabbi Eliezer may have been able to theoretically relate the prohibition against offering condolences for slaves. Faced with the loss of a member of his household, the sage may indeed have been grieving, unable to face his students who might relate to his bereavement as one relates to the death of an ox or donkey.
A third source strengthens this suggestion. Rabbi Yose qualified the rule that there is no eulogizing of gentile slaves and maidservants: "For a worthy slave, we say: 'Woe for the loss of a good and trustworthy person, who derived benefit for hard work.'"
Rabbi Yose's students were surprised by this statement which sounded like a tribute to the deceased: "If this is what is said for a worthy slave, what have you left to be said for worthy Jews!?" The passage ends at this point and we are left to ponder Rabbi Yose's response to the penetrating question of his disciples. Perhaps the venerable sage stood before the students with a broad grin across his face, as if to say: "Indeed, I have left nothing, for a worthy person should be remembered and acclaimed, regardless of social standing."
Slavery in any form is a blot on our history, past and present. It is worthy to note that our sages - despite owning slaves as per contemporary social norms - did not relate to their servants as mere property. They looked beyond the balance-sheet value of their slaves, seeing real people, having genuine feelings for them and grieving at their demise. Thus our tradition provides a paradigm for moving towards the eradication of class differences.
The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.