In the Torah portion of Behar, we read (Vayikra 25:39-43), “If your brother becomes impoverished with you and is sold to you, you shall not work him with slave labor … You shall not subjugate him through hard labor.” In the event that one of our brethren were to be sold as a slave to another, whether it be because he was found to be a thief and has no funds with which to make restitution (see Sh’mot 22:2) or he sold himself because of extreme poverty, the one who purchases his services, his new master, we are instructed in this verse, is limited in the labor that he may demand of the slave.
Our Sages include in the prohibition of “hard labor,” as summarized by Rambam, a.k.a. Maimonides, in his Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Avadim 1:6, the prohibition of demanding needless tasks such as boiling up water that is not needed or ordering the slave, “Dig under this vine until I come back,” a task with no time frame, or telling the slave to do any work just for the purpose of keeping him busy. Likewise, it is forbidden for the master to instruct the slave to perform demeaning tasks (see Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Avadim 1:7).
In Minchat Chinukh, no. 344-346, the aforementioned prohibition is expanded upon: Although he may be at fault for his misfortune by being a thief or for some other reason that led him to be punished with poverty, the slave should still be treated with respect and dignity. The master needs to understand that no one knows what the future may hold. Whereas at this point he may be the master and the other his slave, one day circumstances may change and his current slave may become his master, and, therefore, it would be prudent to treat the other in a kindly fashion.
This concept of treating kindly our fellow brethren who have been forced into unwanted situations as a result of poverty and other untoward causes, even if their difficulties are their own fault, and certainly if they are not, is extended in Minchat Chinukh, no. 3, 346: Although we cannot own a Jewish slave today, this concept applies from an ethical perspective to how we should treat household help. A maid, cleaning lady or the like may also not be instructed to perform needless tasks for the sole purpose of keeping them busy or the like.
In his Sha’are Teshuva (3:60), the famous medieval Torah luminary R. Yonah Gerondi (died 1264) points out another often overlooked aspect to this aforementioned prohibition. Included in “hard labor” is that one may not request another to do something that the other cannot refuse in light of the circumstances. In his talks (see Sholom Smith, A Vort from Rav Pam, p. 160), R. Avraham Pam notes, “Such a situation is common when the boss asks his employee to do something (unrelated to the job) and knows that the worker is afraid to refuse. It can also happen in a close family circle where the burden, expense, effort, or timing of a request may be too much or too difficult, but the relative is ashamed to say no. It can occur with neighbors and friends as well; one person may press the other for a favor that the other cannot turn down. Therefore, care must be taken that one not violate this prohibition, which is more commonplace than one might think.”
In this prohibition, G-d is telling each and every one of us to “watch what you say” to a fellow Jew. We must be sensitive to the feelings of another who may have “fallen on hard times” – even if it is his or her own fault. None of us are perfect and what may be the case today with one of our brethren can happen another day to one of us. Being careful with how we treat another can only help to promote harmony and good will amongst all of us – something that all of us can use. Let us all incorporate the lesson of this prohibition and bring harmony to our lives – as individuals and as a people.