As we approach the bottom of דף מ״ה עמוּד ב, the Gemara turns to the topic of a slave’s conversion to Judaism. Conversion or גֵירוּת has always been taken very seriously by all parties involved and, as one online source aptly describes it, “the process of conversion penetrates a person’s innermost character and spiritual being, demanding an examination of self and other that may culminate in the adoption of a new identity”.
In the time of the בֵּית הַמִקְדָשׁ, conversion involved three things: a) טְבִילָה or going to the mikvah; b) בְּרִית מִילָה or circumcision for males; c) and bringing a קָרְבַּן or sacrifice. In our time קָרְבָּנוֹת do not apply, and there is never a question about the intent of בְּרִית מִילָה if one undergoes circumcision as an adult. But what about the intent of טְבִילָה? Can an עֶבֶד כְּנַעַנִי claim, prior to being purchased by a Jew, that he underwent טְבִילָה of his own accord for the purpose of it counting toward his requirement for conversion? That is the question with which this next sugya in the Gemara begins:
אָמַר רַב חָמָא בַּר גּוּרְיָא אָמַר רַב: הַלּוֹקֵחַ עֶבֶד מִן הַגּוֹי, וְקָדַם וְטָבַל לְשֵׁם בֶּן חוֹרִין, קָנָה עַצְמוֹ בֶּן חוֹרִין. מַאי טַעְמָא
Rav Chama bar Gurya said in the name of Rav: If one buys a slave from a non-Jew, and before he immerses the slave to convert him to an עֶבֶד עִבְרִי the slave pre-empts the buyer by doing טְבִילָה on his own for the sake of becoming a free man, the slave thereby “acquires himself” and indeed goes free. This is a sort of self-declared emancipation proclamation. What is the reason we let him go free?
גּוֹי גּוּפָא לָא קָנֵי לֵיהּ, מַאי דְּקָנֵי לֵיהּ הוּא דְּמַקְנֵי לֵיהּ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, וְכֵיוָן דִּקְדַם וּטְבַל לְשֵׁם בֶּן חוֹרִין — אַפְקְעֵיהּ לְשִׁעְבּוּדֵיהּ
The gentile who sold the slave did not own the slave’s body, but merely the rights to his labor. What he is selling to the Jew therefore are the rights to the slave’s services, or a type of lien. As ArtScroll explains, a gentile cannot own a person as a slave in the same sense that he owns property. Rabbi Stern characterizes this as a distinction between גוּפוֹ and פֵּירוֹת. Basically the sale is for the fruits of one’s labor. However, the former slave must compensate the Jewish buyer for his loss by paying him the value of what he paid to the gentile, since he literally gained freedom at the buyer’s expense. As explained by the Ramban:
וקדם וטבל לשם בן חורין קנה עצמו. פי’ שקדם וטבל קודם שיטבלנו רבו לשום עבדות קנה עצמו בן חורין ואין צריך גט שחרור משום דלא קני ליה לגופו ומשמע מהא דלוקח עבד מן העכו”ם ורצה להשתחרר להתגייר אינו צריך גט שחרור אלא דלימא ליה באפי תרי זיל ויטבול לשום בן חורין דמאי שנא מקדם וטבל דפקע מדנפשיה ומדקאמרינן קנה עצמו בן חורין סתם משמע ואינו צריך גט שחרור כלל וטעמא מוכח דהא לא קני ביה אלא מעשה ידיו וכן דעת חכמי הצרפתים בתוספות ופשוט הוא.
ומסתברא דאע”ג דקנה עצמו חייב הוא לכתוב לרבו שטר על דמיו כאותה ששנינו בפרק השולח (גיטין דף מ’) העושה עבדו אפותיקי ושחררו שורת הדין וכו’ רשב”ג אומר אין העבד כותב אלא המשחרר כותב משום דמזיק שעבודי של חבירו הוא וקיימא לן כותי’ משום דינא דגרמי כל שכן לגבי עבד דמשתרשי לי’ דמי דהאי דמחייב לשלומי אף על פי שאינו כותב לו גט כלל
This ruling, the Gemara adds, is consistent with the determination of Rava:
דְּאָמַר רָבָא: הֶקְדֵּשׁ, חָמֵץ וְשִׁחְרוּר — מַפְקִיעִין מִידֵי שִׁעְבּוּד
With regard to abrogating the שִׁעְבּוּד, Rashi uses the word “אַפּוֹתְּיקִי”, regarding which ArtScroll has a lengthy explanation:
“An apotiki is property designated by a debtor for collection in case he is unable to pay his obligation, i.e. a specifically mortgaged property (either real or movable), Rava rules that an item designated as an aptoiki does not yet belong to the creditor. Rather, until it is collected it is fully the debtor’s, with the creditor holding on a right to collect it for payment. Moreover, Rava’s opinion is that even where the creditor does eventually collect it, his ownership of it is not retroactive. It is rather as if he purchased it at that time in exchange for releasing his claim against the debtor.”
This helps to explain the citation above (אָמַר רָבָא), in which Rava said that there are three instances where the lien is nullified even though the debt remains outstanding:
a) הֶקְדֵּשׁ – if an ox designated as an apotiki was subsequently declared as a קָרְבַּן, the lien is dissolved. As Rashi explains: עשה שורו אפותיקי והקדישו למזבח דהויא קדושת הגוף פקע שיעבודא דקמא אבל קדושת בדק הבית לא מפקעא כדתנן בערכין (דף כג:) מוסיף עוד דינר ופודה הנכסים כולן
b) חָמֵץ – if a Jew designates chometz as an apotiki to a gentile, but retained the חָמֵץ in his possession, if Pesach comes he must destroy it since the lien is dissolved. However if it is in the possession of the gentile, the line would remain in force. As Rashi explains: או אם עשה חמצו אפותיקי לעובד כוכבים והרי הוא מונח בידו של ישראל ובאו שש שעות של ערב הפסח פקע שיעבוד העובד כוכבים הואיל ולא הוי ממש דידיה וחייב זה לבערו
c) שִׁחְרוּר – if a debtor emancipates a slave who he had designated as an apotiki, the emancipation is effective since the debtor still owned the slave at the time of the designation. Once the slave becomes a free man, the creditor’s monetary right to him is dissolved. As Rashi explains: עשה עבדו אפותיקי לחבירו ושחררו משוחרר ופקע ממונו של מלו
But an objection is now raised by Rav Chisda, who says let me tell you about בְלוֹרְיָא: Vloria. V-L-O-R-I-A, Vlo—ria! (Conjuring memories of Gloria, with Van Morrison fronting Them.)
מֵתִיב רַב חִסְדָּא: מַעֲשֶׂה בִּבְלוֹרְיָא הַגִּיּוֹרֶת שֶׁקָּדְמוּ עֲבָדֶיהָ וְטָבְלוּ לְפָנֶיהָ, וּבָא מַעֲשֶׂה לִפְנֵי חֲכָמִים, וְאָמְרוּ: קָנוּ עַצְמָן בְּנֵי חוֹרִין. לְפָנֶיהָ — אִין, לְאַחֲרֶיהָ — לָא
Rav Chisda raised an objection from a baraisa: There was an incident involving בְלוֹרְיָא the female convert in which her slaves pre-empted her, and immersed before her own immersion for conversion. Details of the incident came before the חַכָמִים, and they said: The slaves acquired themselves and became חוֹרִין. Rav Chisda says the baraisa poses a challenge because it implies that only because the slaves immersed before בְלוֹרְיָא, while she was still a gentile, that they became חוֹרִין. The reason for this is presumably that upon her conversion she attains the rights to her slaves’ bodies, and therefore their immersion for the sake of becoming חוֹרִין would be ineffective. However, this contradicts the Gemara’s explanation above that when a Jew gains ownership of a slave from a gentile, the Jew has a right only to the slave’s labor.
Shulie Mishkin shares some fascinating insights at hadran.org about the significance of the מַעֲשֶׂה of בְלוֹרְיָא, one in a long line of non-Jews, often women, who asked hard questions of the rabbis. Shulie writes: “The Gemara goes on to discuss the details of the case but for our purposes it is interesting to note that בְלוֹרְיָא, besides being interested in Judaism, is clearly a wealthy woman. She owns quite a few slaves and is prominent enough that her case is well known. We hear about other wealthy women who encounter the rabbis. These are the matroniyot, the Roman “matrons” who come and ask the rabbis questions about Judaism … One of the most famous among the female converts was Queen Helene of Adiabene.
Despite the fact that converts may never have fully integrated into the Jewish community, Judaism held great appeal for some people. Why? For that we have to look at the values and culture of the ancient world, particularly of ancient Rome. A Roman who had money and property and was male lived the good life. No one else did. All other people were created to serve the Roman master. Life, to quote Thomas Hobbes, was nasty, brutish and short with no deeper meaning or hope for redemption. Roman culture was a beautiful material façade with nothing on the inside. Judaism provided spiritual content: a belief in a just God and a conviction that all people were created in God’s image and had inherent value. This was powerfully enticing to the disenfranchised but also to wealthy and pampered women searching for something more meaningful in life than partying and bringing offerings to pacify the gods …
What happened to all these God fearers and philo-Semites? A new religion, with powerful messages of redemption and justice and the promise of rewards in the afterlife, came along. Unlike Judaism, it offered all the benefits with none of the “costs” – circumcision, restricted diet, and other commandments. This religion of course was Christianity and it spread like wildfire through a spiritually starved Roman world. Judaism remained a small religion, but there were always certain men and women willing to take up its challenges in exchange for the rewards of joining Am Yisrael.“
After some more give and take, the Gemara concedes that this is a challenging topic: פָּרֵיךְ רַב אַחָא: אֵימָא בְּכַסְפָּא וּבִטְבִילָה! קַשְׁיָא
Shmuel comes up with a suggestion for taking pre-emptive action to counter the עֶבֶד’s emancipation proclamation – אָמַר שְׁמוּאֵל, וְצָרִיךְ לְתקְפּוֹ בַּמַּיִם, on which Rashi comments:
לתקפו במים – כשמטבילו לשם יהדות לעבדות צריך שיתקפנו לתת עליו עול מלאכה במים כדי שתהא נראית כטבילת עבדות שאפילו יאמר הוא לשם בן חורין לא קנה עצמו בן חורין ולא יהא ממשות בדבריו
If one wishes to ensure that one’s slave does not declare the טְבִילָה to be לְשֵׁם גֵירוּת, then one needs to hold him tightly in the water in a way that demonstrates the owner’s dominance over the slave at that time, thereby defining the טְבִילָה as לְשֵׁם עַבְדוּת. There was a process involved of literally tightening and loosening the yoke around his neck to make it clear who was in charge,
Well … there is considerably more ground to cover in this installment, and to do that you’ll have to gear up for the last 20 minutes of Rabbi Stern’s Daf video.