Va’eira: Employment vs. Slavery

The Journal of Talmudic Law & Finance
Special Offer! Free with Free Access Membership! Sign up now!

Employment vs. Slavery

In this week’s Parsha the Torah discusses the history of the Jewish nation, who were enslaved in ancient Egypt until G-d redeemed them. G-d sent Moshe Rabbeinu to Pharaoh to instruct him to free the Jews and let them serve Him. Pharaoh refused to listen, and G-d punished the entire Egyptian nation with ten plaques, until the Egyptians were forced to let them go. G-d liberated us, the Jews, from Egyptian slavery so that we should serve Him instead. “For the Children of Israel are servants to Me, they are My servants, whom I took out of Egypt” (Vayikra, 25:55). The Gemora derives from this that G-d commanded us not to enslave ourselves ever again, eFeatured Audio: Employment vs Slaveryven to a fellow Jew, so that we should always remain free to serve G-d.

This week’s journal will explore the practical halachos of this concept.


 Click here for this week’s Featured Audio Shiur by Rav Yosef Greenwald:
Employment vs. Slavery
Choshen Mishpat Chiddush

Choshen Mishpat ChiddushThree Year Term


The Rema rules that an employee may not enter into an employment agreement for a term of more than three years. “Ki li B’nei Yisroel Avadim – …for to me the Children of Israel are enslaved” Hashem commands, and not to another human. Being hired out for a term longer than three years may have a Halachic classification of slavery.


Click here for an in depth analysis.
Click here for a related audio.

Parsha Perspectives from the Archives
Parsha Perspectives:
Parshas VaEira- Free to be Slaves
Feature Article: Employment vs Slavery

Employment vs. Slavery

By Dayan Yehonoson Dovid Hool

The Torah puts much emphasis on acting at all times with ethical behavior, but it is important to understand that often what might seem at first glance to be “merely” an ethical question can actually be a question of mandatory Halachah.

Let us take an everyday example. A lawyer notices that his secretary has spare time on her hands, and decides to set her a task to do even though he has no intention to use the results at all; for example, he instructs her to type up various documents, which he shreds immediately upon her completing the task. Apart from the ethical dimension, is this forbidden according to the Halachah?

Asking an Eved Ivri to Perform Demeaning or Worthless Tasks

The Torah tells us that if one owns an Eved Ivri – a Jewish slave – there are two specific negative commandments that instruct what one may not order the Eved to do. Firstly, “Lo sa’avod bo avodas avved,” (Vayikra, 25:39) which Rashi, quoting Chazal, explains to mean that one may not ask him to perform demeaning tasks that are usually only performed by a slave (such as carrying his master’s clothes behind him to the bathhouse), and secondly, “Lo sirdeh vo bepharech,” (ibid, 43) which Rashi explains as meaning that one may not ask him to perform tasks that the master has no need for (for example, to ask him to warm up a cup of drink when the master has no intention of drinking it).

When it comes to the prohibition of Avodas Perech, Rashi (quoting Sifri) brings two examples: “Work that one has no need for, but is requested merely to afflict him – do not tell him, “Warm me this cup,” if you don’t need it, “Hoe under this vine until I come.””

The Rambam (Hilchos Avaddim, 1:6-8), however, understands that there are two separate issues here that are prohibited under the classification of Avodas Perech. Firstly, as Rashi say, it is forbidden to ask the Eved to do unnecessary tasks, and secondly, it is forbidden to set him up with a task that has no defined end point, such as asking him to hoe the vines indefinitely. Thus the master may not instruct him to work “until the master returns,” for example, but must give the Eved a defined endpoint for the task, such as to work for a specific amount of time, or until a specified set of results is achieved.

A Free Man

These prohibitions apply to the owner of an Eved Ivri. However, Sifri rules that it is permitted to instruct a free, non-Eved to do demeaning or unnecessary work.

As the Rambam explains, “In what context are these matters said (i.e. the prohibitions mentioned earlier)? With an Eved Ivri, because his spirit is despondent as a result of having being sold, whereas for a Jew who has not been sold it is permissible to use him like a slave, because he is only doing this work of his own free will.”

In this Issue:

Related Article
Employee or Independant Contractor? The Halachic Considerations of Hiring
Employee or Independent Contractor? The Halachic Considerations of Hiring
by Rabbi Yehoshua Wolfe
Related Video
Firing an Employee
Firing an Employee
OU Choshen Mishpat Series
Canceling a Scheduled Appointment
Canceling a Scheduled Appointment
OU Choshen Mishpat Series
Related Audio
Halachic Employee vs. Independant Contractor
Halachic Employee vs. Independent Contractor
By: Rav Yehonoson Dovid Hool
Worthless Work
Worthless Work
By: Rav Yehonoson Dovid Hool
Yerushalayim Second Seder Shiurim
Shiurim from the Yerushalayiim Second Seder Program

What about an Employee?

It would appear from the words of the Rambam that since an employee, who has not been sold into slavery, does not share the same low spirits as the Eved Ivri, it would be permitted to require of him these tasks.

However, it appears that the Ra’avad disagrees. This can be derived from the fact that the Ra’avad disputes the Rambam’s explanation of the second example of the Sifri (which the Rambam explains as referring to a case in which the master instructs the Eved to perform a particular task without defining an endpoint) and one of the reasons for this is that the Ra’avad says that surely if one hires an employee, one may set him tasks that have no defined endpoint, and as such why should it be any different in the case of the Eved?

It is clear from the Ra’avad’s argument, then, that an Eved and an employee are equal in this regard – whatever is prohibited for a master to demand of his Eved would be forbidden for an employer to demand of his employee.

Lechem Mishneh disputes this assumption of the Ra’avad, though. The Torah prohibits a master from instructing his slave to do useless or demeaning work, he says, but this does not apply to a free person, as noted above, and thus an employee, who is not an Eved Ivri, may be given such tasks,and this would not serve as any indication as to whether it would be forbidden to ask an Eved to do the same.

Is an Employee Likened to an Eved Ivri or a “Free Man”?

In the light of the above, there appears to be a fundamental difference of opinion here. The Lechem Mishneh understands that when the Torah allows one to give such instructions to a “free” person, as the Rambam writes (Halacha 7), an employee is included in this – the prohibitions apply only to an Eved Ivri. The Ra’avad, however, understandsthat in this respect, an employee has the same status as an Eved, and whatever one may not request of an Eved Ivri one may not request of an employee either.

Other authorities who hold like the Rambam include the Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim, 169:1), who notes that it was customary to request (Jewish) domestic servants to do demeaning tasks, and queries this, due to the prohibition of asking an Eved Ivri to perform a demeaning task. He answers with two reasons: firstly, it is agreed upon at the time of employment and thus the servant knows and agrees in advance, and secondly, the Sifra allows this for a free man, and employees are considered as free men and not “slaves.”

The Basis of the Dispute

Beis Yitzchak (Orach Chaim, 32) explains that the difference of opinion between the Rambam and the Ra’avad is based on a fundamental difference of opinion as to how to regard the status of an employee. The Ra’avad sees an employee as being essentially “owned” to an extent by the employer, and thus with regards to these laws has the same status as an Eved Ivri, whereas the Rambam regards him as being obliged to the employer but not at all owned by him, and thus these prohibitions do not apply to an employee at all.[1]

In Summation:

According to the Rambam the prohibitions of giving demeaning or unnecessary and useless tasks apply only to an Eved Ivri and not to an employee, and this appears to be the conclusion of the Magen Avraham. However, according to Ra’avad and the various Rishonim who understand that every employer has some sort of kinyan on the employee, it would be forbidden to demand such work from an employee.

The Ethical Imperative

It is worth noting that although until now we have been discussing this issue from a purely Halachic viewpoint, there is an ethical imperative that the Torah expects from us, above and beyond that which is strictly speaking permitted.

In this context, Rabbeinu Yonah (Sha’arei Teshuvah, Sha’ar 3, 60) forbids requesting any tasks, even from a “free” person, if there is a concern that he will carry out your wishes not out of genuine desire but because he is either too afraid or embarrassed to refuse.

Similarly, note the general instructions of the Sefer Chassidim (R’ Yehudah Hachassid, 1074) regarding excess demands from employees:

“If one hires an employee to do some work, or to teach his children, or other such matters, he should not trouble him too much, or more than he agreed with him to do at the outset. One shouldn’t ask anyone to do something that one knows he cannot do; for example, if you know that he is incapable of travelling more than a certain distance, do not ask him to travel further, even if he agrees to do so.”

[1] Ra’avad’s view, that there is some form of Kinyan that an employer has on his employee, is discussed at length by the Machaneh Ephraim (Schiras Po’alim, 1), who brings several other authorities who seem to concur with the Ra’avad on this.

* * *
To dedicate an issue of the Journal or
for other dedication opportunities, please contact the Bais HaVaad at

Join Our Mailing List

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.