Slavery

June 7, 2006

Judaism does recognize the concept of slavery, or servitude, but discourages it strongly, and in its perspective on the matter, stands far above the rest of the world. Parashat Behar makes reference to the institution of slavery, and the role of the “Yovel,” the Jubilee Year, that occurs every fiftieth year and is the final release-date for Hebrew male and female servants. And in the Haftarah of Parashat Mishpatim, the parashah in which the role of slavery in Jewish life is introduced, Yirmiyahu speaks of the Jewish People’s violation of the Torah’s (and later the Liberty Bell’s) Command of “…and you shall proclaim freedom in the Land for all its inhabitants,” (VaYikra 25:10), by reneging on granting freedom to their Hebrew male and female servants in the Yovel Year. In the Haftarah, Yirmiyahu goes on to say that the violation of that Command will be a major ingredient in G-d’s decision to destroy the First Temple and to send the Jewish People into their first Exile from the Holy Land.

In considering the role that slavery plays in Judaism, it is necessary to define the term “Avodat Parech,” “labor of crushing hardness,” that we find in Shemot 1:13, “The Egyptians enslaved the Children of Israel with ‘crushing hardness.’ ” This would seem to agree with Rashi’s definition of the term in that verse as “hard labor, that exhausts and breaks the body.” The Rambam in “Hilchot Avadim” (Laws of Servants) 1:6, defines the term somewhat differently. His definition seems to involve humiliation of the worker. He says, “It is forbidden to work an “Eved Ivri,” or Hebrew servant, by making him perform ‘avodat parech.’ And what is ‘avodat parech?’ That is work that has no time-limit, or work that is not needed, but is assigned to the servant only to make him work…Based on that principle, our Sages said that the master should not tell his servant to ‘Hoe under the vines until I return’ because he didn’t place any time-limit on the work, but rather he should say, ‘Hoe until a particular time or till a particular place.’ Also he should not say to his servant, ‘Dig in this place’ even though he has no need for a hole in that place, or even to warm a cup of hot water or prepare a cup of cold water’ when he doesn’t need it. And if the master commands his Hebrew servant to do this kind of work, he violates a Negative Command, as it says, ‘Do not work him in a humiliating manner.’ ” (VaYikra 25:46) Another approach to an explanation of the term “Avodat Parech” is work that is initiated by deceptive speech, beginning with “Peh Rach,” deceptively soft and gentle speech, but increasing afterwards exponentially in harshness.

While it is permitted for a Jewish master to work his “Eved Kenaani” or non-Jewish servant by making him perform ‘avodat parech,’ the Rambam in “Hilchot Avadim” 9:8 makes it clear that to behave in that way towards his non-Jewish servants places him outside of Jewish tradition.