Sunday, January 30, 2022

Parshat Shavua Mishpatim, עבד "Evved," Slave or Just Employee?


פרשת משפטים Parshat Shavua Mishpatim

Shmot Chapter 21:1

"And these ae the laws..."

Parshat Shavua Mishpatim begins with laws about employment, the rights of the employee. OK, I know that everybody else translates עֶ֣בֶד as "slave." But last week as I read over the chapters before attending our local zoom parsha class, the meaning seemed very clear. The avaddim aren't slaves like the Africans who had been brought to America to work for the Europeans were until Abraham Lincoln had them freed. 

What's called the evved Ivri, Jewish/Hebrew slave wasn't a slave "imported" from another location bought at an auction or from some agent. He/She was someone who was poverty stricken and couldn't live off of his land. Remember that the Land of Israel had just been divided among the tribes, and each tribe had gotten its portion and each portion was to be divided among the clans. The laws here had been designed by Gd for the Jewish People in their Holy Land. I like to try to understand the Tanach and Hebrew according to how life was at the time.

Some of us have worked at jobs with difficult conditions. Many Sabbath observers who made it to America had to start new jobs every week, since they were automatically fired when they left early on Friday after announcing that they wouldn't be showing up on Saturday. I don't now about you, but employment conditions at some of my old jobs gave me a choice of very difficult hours/conditions or being fired. 

Few jobs allow employees to take vacation whenever they want and for however long they want. Keep that in your head when Moshe and Aharon demand that all the workers should leave at the same time.

And changing work conditions... I remember when the high school where I had been teaching English suddenly gave us fewer hours per week to teach the same material to the same number of students. After that they gave two double lessons on consecutive days instead of spreading out the teaching hours to give the students, especially my weak ones, a chance to really absorb the curriculum. Yes, that's like how Pharaoh told them to make bricks without providing the necessary straw.

Here Gd is demanding humane working conditions for employees. Proof that there's nothing slave-like in being an "evved" is that their employment contract is mandated by Gd to end after a maximum of six years. 

Think about it. That's not slavery!


Leah S said...

good article. the evved ivri was what we would call an "indentured servant" in English - the arrangement was popular in American colonial times, when people who wanted to come to America but couldn't afford a ticket, would hire themselves out for a 24/7 job for a certain number of years. but it is also different because during that time the indentured servant was attached to the job and couldn't quit, no matter how bad the working conditions. and many of them were abused.

the way I would describe evved ivri is: a person who is so desperately in debt that his only way to get out of it is to sign a contract for a 24/7 job for 7 years, receiving the whole payment in advance. but he can get out of the contract afterwards if he or maybe his relatives can raise the money to pay back the amount he received, pro rata relative to the number of years left on his contract; or he goes free completely with no payment at the end of 7 years.

the Torah and Talmud put severe limits on the working conditions and what the employer is allowed to demand. I'm sure you're familiar with all that, but for any readers who are not familiar - if the employee is injured in any way, he goes free without completing the rest of his contract. if there is only one pillow in the house for sleeping, the employee gets it and not the employer. etc. the employer cannot "sell" him to anyone else. and then the Torah prescribes generous severance pay at the end of the 7 years so he will have a good start and not go into debt again right away.

so I really think it is inaccurate to describe it as "slavery". it is nothing like the chattel slavery of the US South prior to the Civil War; or the Roman or Greek slavery where a slave was considered an "animated tool" and could be worked to death, or beaten or executed for no reason at the master's whim.

Batya said...

Leah, thanks so much for the extra explanation.