Blond, Tall, With Honey-colored Eyes Jewish Ownership of Slaves in the Ottoman Empire

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Hundreds of Hebrew written sources, dozens of official decrees, judicial records ( sijillat), and reports of European travelers indicate that slaveholding – particularly of females of slavic origin – in Jewish households in the urban centers of the Ottoman Empire was widespread from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. This halachically and legally problematic habit was an unparalleled phenomenon in any other Jewish community in the early modern period. The presence of slaves in Jewish households effected family life in many ways. I dealt with two of them: The first is cohabitation of Jewish men with female slaves, usually non-Jewish, who in effect served as their concubines and bore them legitimate children; the second is marriage with manumitted slaves who converted to Judaism and became an integral part of the community. These phenomena attest once again to the great extent to which Jewish society and its norms and codes were influenced by Muslim urban society, and the gap between rabbinic rhetoric ideals and the dynamic daily existence of Jews from all social strata.
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  Blond, Tall, with Honey-Colored Eyes: Jewish Ownership of Slaves in the Ottoman EmpireHundreds of Hebrew written sources, dozens of official decrees, judicial records(sijillat), and reports of European travelers indicate that slaveholding- particularly of females ofSlavic srcin - in Jewish households in the urban centers of the Ottoman Empire waswidespread from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. This halachically and legallyproblematic habit was an unparalleled phenomenon in any other Jewish community in the earlymodem period. The presence of slaves in Jewish households effected family life in many ways.I dealt with two of them: The first is cohabitation of Jewish men with female slaves, usuallynon-Jewish, who in effect served as their concubines and bore them legitimate children; thesecond is marriage with manumitted slaves who converted to Judaism and became an integralpart of the community. These phenomena attest once again to the great extent to which Jewishsociety and its norms and codes were influenced by Muslim urban society, and the gap betweenrabbinic rhetoric ideals and the dynamic daily existence of Jews from all social strata.Slavery and slaveholding has been among the most outstanding aspects of life in thevarious and varying Muslim societies over the centuries.1 As is reported by hundreds ofHebrew sources, dozens of official ordinances, documents produced by the Shari'a courts,and the reports of European travelers, slaveholding was also common among Jews inMuslim lands. The ownership of w7omen, in particular, was widespread in Jewishhouseholds in the Ottoman Empire on the threshold of the modern era. It was certainlyfar more common than in Jewish communities in North Africa or Europe. What we knowabout this practice may now be considerably enlarged thanks to my discovery of about 100as yet unknown documents from the seventeenth-century court registers of Hasköy, one ofthe quarters of Istanbul. These documents, especially as w7e will now study them alongsideknown rabbinic sources, provide information that both supports existing data and permitsasking new questions. Slavery in the Ottoman EmpireResearch on slavery in the Ottoman Empire first concentrated on economic and legal issues;the early studies of Ehud Toledano are especially noteworthy.3 During the past 15 years,research has concentrated on the existence of various classes of slaves, their mobility fromone place and one master to another, and on bonds of loyalty and patronage. Growing  academic interest in the history of women and minorities has drawn the attention ofscholars to the lives of the slaves themselves. The first study dealing with slavery in the Muslim world in its Jewish context was anarticle published by Simha Assaf in 1939, who indicated how widespread Jewish ownershipof slaves was and who discussed the status of slaves under the headings of the law of theland and the halakhah. Renewed interest in the subject began in the 1980s, after theOttoman archives were opened and in the wake of studies on Ottoman slavery in general.The first to enter the fray was Haim Gerber, followed by Ovadia Salama. In the mid-1990s,Ruth Lamdan wrote on Jewish slaveholding in Syria and Palestine during the sixteenthcentury, which addressed the institution's halachic and social aspects and focused inparticular on the distress slaveholding caused the wives of owners. The sijil documents I have unearthed allow us to go further. Essentially, there is nothingunusual about this body of texts. Applying to the Shan a court was a normal procedurewhose purpose was to conform to formal notarial requirements: contracts of employment(such as Kitaba) and the manumission or transfer of slave-ownership necessitated legalregistration with the qadi, who then issued an official document (Hujet), or a writ ofmanumission (rtak-name[h]). At times, manumission was made contingent on thecontinuance of wala, or kinship, which signified that the former owner retained the rightto inherit the freed slave, and which, in turn, presupposed mutual loyalty and somethingthat resembled a patron-client relationship. The documents concern female slaves almost exclusively; I found only one caseconcerning a male. Slavery thus seems to have been limited to those who would providehousehold services of the kind exclusively performed by women, including sexual ones.This helps explain why nearly all the slaves were white females, principally of Slavic srcincaptured during Ottoman campaigns, or by their Tatar collaborators in Eastern Europe, withonly a few of other provenance - Circassian, Caucasian, Hungarian, and Austrian. Blackslaves are not mentioned. Physical descriptions of female slaves remark about fair hair andlight-colored eyes, although, possibly, this simply reflects the general characteristics of thecaptured and enslaved women; male preference, however, should not be ruled out. Women, too, bought slaves, but most likely the traits women sought out were domesticskills, physical strength, and an obedient nature. Beauty, for them, was no doubt for themost part irrelevant, although it may have been they considered slave owning an act of  conspicuous consumption, the slave being a beautiful object to be shown off. No wonder,the documents speak of female slaves who were deformed and scarred.Many, if not the large majority, of the women brought from Balkan and EasternEuropean regions were srcinally Christians, and they are identified accordingly asnasraniyye, isaviyye milletinden. When religion is not specified, we may assume that atleast some of the women had converted to Judaism and were given Jewish names. Othersretained their Slavic or Balkan birth-names. Muslim slaves are not mentioned, althoughwe shall see that Jews did hold Muslim slaves. The owners were individuals, both menand women. Sometimes the ownership was shared by several family members (whether as aresult of purchase or inheritance) or even in partnership with neighbors. In most cases, the sources are silent about the duties of slaves or the substance ofrelations - particularly of the women - with their male or female masters. What littleinformation we have comes from Hebrew sources, and it clearly points to female slavesperforming household chores alongside hired servants. Many of them also served asconcubines, in what the documents indicate was, on the whole, relative harmony with thelady of the house. Writs of manumission registered in the courts often note, too, that theowners are freeing a female slave who had served them loyally and obediently.Jews freed their slaves using the same legal procedures, under similar conditions, and foridentical reasons as did Muslims, most commonly in accord with kitaba contracts.Manumission could usually come at the end of a set period, with or without payment.Indenture itself was generally for a set period of time - a few years of service, and at timesno more than a year or two. Ilya, for example:...who was the vekil and the eldest son of Avraham veledi Ely a the Jew, who lives inthe Kiremitci Ahmed Celebi neighborhood in Hask?y and whose vekale w7as testifiedby Yasef son of Mihayil and Ilya son of Nahem the Jews, came to the court andreported on the presence of the cariye of the said Avraham, Eponiye daughter ofRomane, who was tall, had blue eyes, detached eyebrows, and was of Russian srcin:'The said Abraham made an agreement with the said Eponiye, that if she will servehim four years with loyalty, at the end of the period she will be free like the other freepeople.' The said Eponiye accepted the agreement, and what happened was registered in 5 Sevval 1090.Freedom might also be purchased by refunding the purchase price.19 Servitude mightalso end with the death of the owner or as an act of piety. Slaves who converted to Islam  were usually removed at once from their (former) owner, whether Jewish or Christian. Theywere then entrusted to a Muslim custodian and sold only to Muslims. Conversion to Islamwas not necessarily synonymous with liberation. To wit:The slave [together with her daughter fathered by] a Jew [her owner] from the PiriPasa neighborhood, w7ho was of medium height, blue eyes, reddish eyebrows, pointednose, and her daughter converted to Islam. She was named as Giilistan, and herdaughter was named as Gulbuse. An earlier document says that Giilistan was handed over to Ibrahim Efendi. Upon themother's conversion to Islam, both slave and child - here a daughter - were taken from theJewish owner-father and, one imagines, adopted by a Muslim. Another source documentsan event that took place in Jerusalem in 1579. Fauna, the Muslim slave of the JewessMarhaba, arrived before the court, said the Shahada (and thus formally converted to Islam),and consequently was turned over to the commander of the fortress.21 In mid-sixteenthcentury Bursa, a convert (possibly a former Jew) was flogged for selling a Muslim slavegirl to a Jew: The author mentions the confiscation and sale of the Jewish sarraf's Russianslave that became Muslim. Jewish slave-tradingWestern sources repeatedly mention that Jewish men and women resident in Istanbulengaged in the buying, training, and sale of slaves,23 although at times, slave trading wasnot that at all, but Jews ransoming Jewish captives, as was the tradition.24 A small numberof texts nonetheless show that Jews were involved in the slave trade as dealers (Turkish:esirji). A communal ordinance dating from the early seventeenth century also points toextensive Jewish involvement in the slave trade in Istanbul (as well as Karaites). Theprologue reads:Since within the holy community, may the Lord save it and keep it, there areindividuals who negotiate to buy and sell male and female captives as male and femaleslaves, and there are also a few among them who buy...slaves not in order to sell thembut to use them as slaves of their own, and it is customary in the state, from earliesttimes, to pay the...tax to the governor for the...slaves [irrespective of] whether onebuys or sells...slaves through negotiation in order to make a profit or whether one buysthem for himself.... Likewise, a document of the Shan a court from A.H. 1089 (=1678) refers directly
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