A master who owns a Jewish servant must go to great lengths not to shame
him in any way whatsoever nor demand that he engage in hard labor (porech)
or subject him to menial or redundant activities (Leviticus 25:43). He has
to go at all lengths necessary to ensure that his dignity is not
compromised in any way whatsoever.
The Jewish nation was slaves to the Egyptians during their exile.
Intent on demoralizing the Israelites, their brutal captors cruelly
subjected them to backbreaking work described as porech, “crushing
harshness” (Shemos 1:13). After originally ensnaring them to work, the
Israelites had to endure terrible conditions and hardships. Slaves to
their Egyptian masters, this tortuous ordeal lasted until Moshe
emancipated them as he wrought G-d’s infliction upon the Egyptians with
the Ten Plagues.
The redemption celebrated the Jewish nation’s transition from “servants of
Pharaoh” to “servants of G-d” as stressed in the opening of the Ten
Commandments: “I am Hashem Your G-d Who has taken you out of the land of
Egypt, from the house of slavery” (Shemos 20:2).
Jewish law deals with an eved Ivrei, Jewish servant. But as evident from
how such he is treated, this is a far cry from the general notion of
slavery throughout human history until modern times.
No ownership rights exist over our Jewish brethren. No Jew can subjugate
himself to a human master. The circumstances of his enslavement can only
ever be temporary; it is never a permanent state. He was not born to serve
you. Typically, a Jewish servant works for six years and goes free in the
seventh. And even if he voluntarily remains enslaved thereafter, he
nevertheless goes free in the Yoivel, Jubilee Year.
While in the capacity of a servant, his master cannot demean him in any
way whatsoever. His dignity must be protected at each and every occasion.
The Jewish servant cannot be ordered to perform tasks that are unnecessary
except to keep him gainfully employed. Nor can he aggrieve him.
He can never forget that he is, in actual fact, his brother. The Jewish
servant has met upon unfortunate circumstances in the ever turning wheel
of fortune. And this is an opportunity to bestow kindness upon his
brethren. But the master should not ever think that he is superior in any
respect. On the contrary, the halacha imposes parity between Jewish master
and Jewish servant. So if there is only one pillow in the house, the
Jewish servant gets it.
The Jewish people experienced first-hand what it meant being a nation of
slaves to Pharaoh. And they are sensitive not to inflict the harsh labor
of Egypt onto a servant in their care. In this regard, it is interesting
to note the identical usage of the word porech, “harsh labor” used to
describe both the Egyptian oppression and how not to behave to the Jewish
Actually, all servitude has a higher calling.
Every human being has one and only one Master – the Ribbonei shel
Olam, “Master of the Universe”. Insofar as the Jew is given the epithet
oved Hashem, “servant of G-d”, his Creator reminds him “You are my
servant – you are not a servant of a servant” (Bava Metzia 10a).
We were born to serve Him – and only Him. He is the only Master that we
must answer to.