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The Challenge of Wealth

Parshas Vaera

By Dr. Meir Tamari

There are three forms of oppression mentioned in the Covenant with Avraham (Genesis, 15:13) and three forms of redemption mentioned in our parshah (Exodus, 6:6). Irrespective of whether we read them in the order in which they appear in Genesis or in their reverse order as in our parshah, it is clear that they are of the essence both of the exile and of the redemption. It behooves us therefore to examine them for significance in our business and economic lives whether as employees or employers, consumers or suppliers or even as citizens in our societies, Jewish or non-Jewish alike.

Inuy- suffering or oppression is the first stage of the redemption.

Our sages have seen inuy as the causing of psychological, mental or emotional harm or suffering to a person. This is over and above any physical or financial damage or harm. Employers cause this to employees, teachers to students and public official to the citizens they serve. Inuy flows from use of power; financial, economic and political. When the free market mechanism is exchanged for centralized planned economies, it gives officials not only the authority to decide economic policies and priorities, but also, the power over personal and private lives. This is only the extreme case of the power possessed by the employer or authority in all walks of life. Sexual harassment is easily facilitated by employer-employee relationships and exists not only where there is rape but even when consent is obtained in exchange for through job security or career advancement. It is a particularly abhorrent form of bribery, because of the abhorrence that Judaism has for sexual immorality.

"A person should not subjugate his fellowman. If others fear him [whether for political, social or economic reasons] or are afraid or embarrassed to challenge his opinion [often the case in superior-dependent relationships and the cause of friction there], he should not command them to do even a minor task unless it is in accordance with their will and for their benefit "( Rabbenu Jonah, Shaarei Teshuvah, 3:60).

Often employees and subordinates are embarrassed by their superiors or employers, which easily becomes a method of oppression. Employers and managers are usually cleverer and better trained than their employees or their subordinates. The less experienced and less confident are easy game for embarrassment and verbal oppression. The Sefer Chassidim (972) sees as sinful a person who simply exploits these differences.

Befarech, the labor that exhausts the human body forced on the Jews by the Egyptians did not lie especially in the severity of the labor. Rather the aim was to oppress with cunning. In determining the work no account was taken of the worker's suitability, skill, aptitude or capability .On the contrary, they took pains to select the jobs for which the person was least suitable ((commentary on the Haggadah, pp114-115, Rabbi Marcus Lehman.)."Men were given work suitable for women and vice versa" (Sotah, 11). The same inuy applies when workers are given useless or unnecessary jobs simply to fill the time of the worker. In this way, the dignity flowing from the satisfaction of the job well done or from any creativity is destroyed.

Work studies have shown that the kind of oppression exemplified in inuy, leads to greater absenteeism, shoddy work and a rebellious labor force. However, even where this does not happen, the immorality still exists.

It should be noted that communal workers of all ranks and types are often faced with inuy from the lay leaders' exploitation of their status and authority. This also operates in the field of communal fundraising where people with immoral or even criminal backgrounds, can be 'redeemed' through the community's need of their financial help.


It is true that slavery as such does not exist in the Western world in which we live. However, it does exist in the form of forced labor, political prisoners and other non free labor. To what extent are we allowed to buy the products of such labor or to invest in firms employing them? Is there a case of mesayeia leovrei aveira? If so, what is the aveira?

The above questions raise many complicated issues and therefore they deserve a separate and detailed review in a future parshah that will attempt to present the different problems and their Torah answers. Here, I would just like to present the Rambam's conclusion to Hilkhot Avadim that supplies a foundation for this future discussion.

An eved canaani, even though he has a different status from the eved ivri, is still not a chattel as in other societies. Physical abuse leading to the loss of certain parts of the body, obligated the owner to free the slave, and murder carried a death sentence. The sanctity of Eretz Yisrael gave sanctuary and freedom to an eved, who fled the master and came there.

However, Maimonides insists on certain moral behavior even in those cases where the owner operates fully within his legal rights. "It is permitted to make a slave work rigorously [befarech], and even though this is the law, nevertheless morality and ethics and wisdom require that a person should be merciful and pursue justice and not exaggerate the burden of the slave and not cause him sorrow or pain, but should give him appropriate food and drink as did the early sages. One should not shame him, neither physically nor verbally. The Torah permitted them to us for work and not to shame or mistreat. One is not permitted to shout at them, rather one should speak kindly to them and listen to their complaints. We, the descendants of Abraham, on whom G-d poured the blessed teachings of Torah and commanded to follow just laws, are obligated to be merciful to all" (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Avadim, chapter 9, halakhah 9).


Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, points out that the ger, stranger, is defined by the Torah, (Numbers, 5:8) as one who has no redeemer. Therefore gerim are those who either are legally denied rights, or where they enjoy rights have nobody to defend them. He continues to describe how this has applied to the Jews throughout our history. In the last 2 centuries this has become applicable to many millions of people, Jewish and non-Jewish. It is true that the causes and the scope differ widely from group to group and from period to period, nevertheless, this aspect applies to all of them. We have foreign workers and new immigrants in all our western societies including Israel. Sometimes they are illegal and sometimes legal. However, always they are ignorant of their rights or unable, unwilling and frightened to assert them.

In earlier periods of our history, the autonomous Jewish communities seem to have been able to protect the rights of refugees and new immigrants. There is only one recorded case of a community refusing admission to refugees and that is Rome, in 1492. Elsewhere, they were given the equal halakhic and social protection of the kehillah and the obligations. However, in many cases their economic freedom was limited in order not to destroy the economic base of the Jewish host societies, that were narrow enough to begin with. (Rama, Choshen Mishpat, section156, subsection 5. The 19th and 20th centuries display a different pattern. Israel's treatment of its immigrants differs radically from that of other countries, still there is a long history of social and religious discrimination. However, its treatment of foreign workers is no better than other countries even though our sources demand a certain pattern of behavior when others are subject to our power. This like most issues of social justice seems to be no concern of organized Judaism. The modern industrial revolution brought to Eastern European Jewry, the same social phenomena of exploitation and negation of legal rights at the hands of their fellow Jews as in the non-Jewish societies of Western Europe. The introduction of the putting out system subjected whole families to conditions that their descendants later suffered in the Jewish sweat shops of England and New York. Trade unions were denied even though halakhic authorities later showed that they were quite legal ( Iggrot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat section 59.See also Harav Kook, Netivah, Nissan 5693). It can be argued that the exploitation during these periods of Jew by Jew, and the resounding silence of religious leaders were a major cause of the revolt against Torah that characterized European history over these two centuries. .

In contrast, we should be aware of the passage quoted above from the Rambam in conjunction with the many teachings of our sages in earlier periods regarding the treatment of gerim. We see that Joshua was careful to observe his promise to the Gibeonites, despite the contrary public pressure that flowed from their deceit in obtaining that promise. The Sifri in discussing the mitzvah of "You shall love your G-d, relates it Avraham who loved G-d and therefore felt obliged to love idol worshipping strangers and draw them close to the One G-d (Arukh HaShulchan Orach Chayim, section 1).. " You shall love the Lord Your G-d; Your behavior to people should cause them to love HaShem" (Yoma, 86a).

Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and Project Genesis, Inc.

Dr. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics ( in Jerusalem.



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