Justice, Torah

Crushing the Body & Spirit: Egyptian Slavery & Jewish Labor Law

by Aryeh Bernstein

This devar torah for Parashat Ki Tavo and Labor Day was first written internally for the Avodah Service Corps, for which the author is National Jewish Educator.

Around the world, Jews are nearing the conclusion of the annual cycle of reading the Torah. This week’s portion, Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy/Devarim 26-29:8), opens with forethought for the date when the wandering Israelites are safely landed, secure of food and home. When they witness their first successful harvest, they must not self-indulge or gorge themselves with privileged entitlement, but bring the first of their fruit as an offering to the Creator in the Temple, and one by one, every civilian, would make the same declaration, grounding their current privilege in a sobering historical arc:

“A perishing Aramean was my father, and he went down to Egypt, and was a migrant there, with a few people; and there he became a large, mighty, and developed nation. And the Egyptians did us evil, and abused us, and set upon us hard labor. And we cried out to YHWH, the God of our ancestors, and YHWH heard our voice, and saw our abuse, and our toil, and our oppression. And YHWH brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, and with great terror, and with signs, and with wonders and brought us to this place, giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut. 26:5-9).

The Temple is long gone and Jews have long been spread across a sprawling, complex, and creative diaspora. Nevertheless, for millenia, many Jews have continued to recite this passage in an annual ritual of grounding any bounty we have in a story of oppression and liberation, as a central part of the Passover seder is unpacking the verses of this declaration (Mishnah Pesahim 10:4). 

The declaration depicts the slavery experience as “hard labor” — avodah kashah. The classical Passover Haggadah grounds this retroactive memory in the historical description of the beginning of slavery in the book of Sh’mot/Exodus: “And Egypt worked the Israelites crushingly. And they embittered their lives with hard work, with mortar and bricks and with all sorts of work in the field — all their work which they set them to work, crushingly” (Exodus 1:13-14). The Hebrew word rendered here as “crushingly”, בְּפָרֶךְ/be-farekh, is a rare word, translated in some versions as “rigorously”, “vigorously”, “ruthlessly”, or other variations. It is clearly meant to pack a punch, describing draconian labor abuse, but its precise force is elusive, obscure. Bible scholar Robert Alter notes that it is “derived from a root that means ‘to break into pieces,’ ‘to pulverize.’ In Talmudic Aramaic, that root is used for cracking and crushing nuts and also for refuting someone else’s spurious argument. What is it that the Egyptians attempted to crush with oppressive labor? The Israelites’ backs? Their spirit? Their self-understanding? It also might be related to the ancient Assyrian word paraku, “to display violence”. What makes labor conditions not just hard or strenuous, but violent?

Be-farekh appears only once elsewhere in the Torah, in labor law legislated for this once-enslaved people, now anticipating freedom, power, and the responsibility to establish a just labor system:

And if your kin with you sinks and is sold to you, you may not make them serve with slave service. It is as a hired worker, as a resident, that they shall be with you; until the Jubliee year shall they serve with you. Then they shall depart from you, they and their children with them, and return to their family, and to their ancestral portion shall they return. For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold for slave sales. You may not subjugate them crushingly, but fear your God. (Lev. 25:39-43).

Much of our economy in the U.S. has traditionally been and continues to be grounded in wealthy people, landowners, corporations, preying on people plunged into debt, losing their land and livelihood, and forced to work as day laborers or farmhands, or stuck for perpetuity in servitude to a company town or an agribusiness, taking on all liabilities while unable to generate profits for themselves, often incurring debilitating injury — backbreaking, soul-crushing labor. The Torah anticipates that people with power will set up such economies and attempts to interrupt them. But the Rabbinic tradition doesn’t stop with understanding prohibited “crushing labor” as physically overwhelming or financially exploitative labor. The Rabbis see these grotesque labor abuses and seek out their root causes, restricting much more common, more innocuous-seeming labor practices that nevertheless accustom people to abuse, paving the way to macro-aggressions through micro-aggressions. Listen to how the Rambam (1135-1204, Egypt & Spain) digests Talmudic legislation based on the restriction of “crushing labor”:

“What is crushing labor? This is labor that has no demarcated scope, and labor that is not needed, but which one’s intention is simply to keep the other person working, so as not to be idle. From here, the Sages said that one may not say, “Hoe under the vines until I come back”, because this has no delineated scope. Instead, one should say, “Hoe until such-and-such a time or until such-and-such a place”. Nor may one say, “Dig this place” if one doesn’t need it, and even to heat him a cup of hot beverage or to cool something off if one doesn’t need it, is forbidden, and one violates a Biblical prohibition, as is said, “You may not subjugate him crushingly” (VaYikra 25:43): Therefore, one may only make the person do a task with demarcated scope which one also needs” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot ‘Avadim 1:6).

Busy-work is forbidden by Jewish law. You want to understand how we get to a place where a society tolerates massively profitable corporations mangling the bodies and destroying the freedom and spirit of its laborers in order to squeeze every drop of labor out of them? It starts with every time a boss tells a secretary to make coffee in order to keep busy, every time a school teacher imposes an assignment with no educational purpose, to keep the kids from socializing, every time an employer solidifies their hierarchical relationship by building assignments out of isolating and occupying the employees. Each of those soul-crushing moments is an echo of the Biblical Phara’oh, who concocted a massive, national labor project, in order to break up Israelite families and interrupt their prolific birth rates (Exodus 1:7-11). 

May we, on this Shabbat and this Labor Day, find power in solidarity to assert everyone’s personhood and dignity and uproot all crushing, labor exploitation, to herald a world of purposeful, meaningful, fair, and bounded labor for all sentient beings. Shabbat shalom.

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