Shemot: Respect for the Worker

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3D jigsaw pieces with text. Part of a series.
28 Dec 2007

Our parsha tells us that the Egyptians worked Benei Yisrael with “crushing labor” (befarekh – Shemot 1:13). While Rashi explains that this refers to work which crushes the body, one explanation of the Gemara is that this refers to demeaning work – giving men’s work to women and women’s work to men (Sota 11b).

In Parshat Behar we learn that it is forbidden to work a Jewish slave “befarekh” (Vayikra 25:43). There also the Sifri explains that the prohibition is not from making your slave work hard, but rather to demean him by giving him busy work.

The Sefer HaChinukh on this mitzva points out that if it is forbidden to work a slave in this way, we should learn that an ordinary worker should also be treated with respect.

We can learn the same principle from the Rambam. The Rambam writes: “It is permissible to give crushing labor to a non-Jewish slave. And even though this is the law, it is pious and wise to be merciful and just, and not to put a heavy burden on his slave and oppress him… The Torah allowed us to do work with them, not to shame them, and one should speak to them gently, not with shouting and anger” (Avadim 9:8).

We also learn “A person can feed his father fattened birds and yet [HaShem] drives him from the world, and another makes his father work on the grindstone and it brings him to the World to Come” (Kiddushin 31a, SA YD 240:4). The commentators explain that if the father’s work is essential for the family, it is not improper to put him to hard work; contrarily, even if a person indulges his father, he is sinning if he doesn’t speak to him respectfully. Again, human relations are the most significant consideration.

There’s nothing wrong with asking employees to work hard, within the limits of what is customary in their line of work, but every effort has to be made to treat them with respect and dignity. (It goes without saying that the employee also needs to treat the boss with respect.)

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.