The Torah in Parashat Behar presents several different laws relevant to masters and servants, including the prohibition of “lo tirdeh vo be-farekh,” which forbids overworking one’s Jewish servant (25:43). The Rambam (Sefer Ha-mitzvot – lo ta’aseh 259), based on Torat Kohanim, gives two examples of this prohibition – forcing a servant to perform work which the master does not actually need, and imposing upon the servant a job with no time limit. This kind of servitude lies beyond the rights of the master, who is required to treat his servant with dignity and respect.
Several verses later (25:46), the Torah issues what appears to be a reiteration of this command: “but among your brethren, the Israelites, a man shall not impose hard work upon his fellow.” Rabbenu Yona, in a fascinating passage in his Sha’arei Teshuva (3:60), contends – remarkably – that this prohibition applies to our dealings with all our fellow Jews, and is not limited to the specific context of a formal eved ivri (Jewish servant). According to Rabbenu Yona, this verse forbids asking a favor from somebody whom one knows will be too intimidated or ashamed to refuse. Rabbenu Yona emphasizes that this applies even to small favors, such as heating up some water or running a quick errand. If a person takes advantage of the imbalance of power or stature in a relationship by asking such a favor from somebody who will feel duty-bound to comply, then he is in violation of this Torah command, “lo tirdeh vo be-farekh.”
Later writers noted that other Rishonim appear to disagree with Rabbenu Yona. Rashi, in some editions of his Torah commentary, explains the second verse as referring to employees of kings or other authority figures, thus expanding the prohibition beyond the specific context of eved ivri to include those who work for people in positions of authority. According to Rashi, this verse does not establish a prohibition relevant to all people, but rather expands the law specifically to the case of employees working for people in positions of power. Additionally, the Rambam, in Hilkhot Avadim (1:7), writes explicitly that this prohibition applies only to situation of a formal master/servant relationship, where the servant would feel helplessly bound to perform demeaning work due to his responsibilities as a servant. Outside this framework, however, where a person has no legal obligation to agree to any favors, there is no such prohibition.
Nevertheless, there are those who have applied Rabbenu Yona’s position as a practical matter. Rav Nissim Karelitz (Chut Shani – Shabbat, vol. 3, p. 244) warns of the potential for violating this prohibition in a household setting. He writes that unduly imposing upon one’s spouse or children would, according to Rabbenu Yona, constitute a Torah violation. Of course, it is permissible to ask a spouse to perform normal, expected household duties, and it is important to train children to help out in the home as part of their education. However, Rav Karelitz warns that one must exercise care to ensure not to exceed beyond legitimate, reasonable expectations when asking favors from the members of one’s household.
In another intriguing application of Rabbenu Yona’s position, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach is said to have discussed the question of whether it is permissible to invite a rabbi or scholar to speak in a setting where he would feel pressured into agreeing. Rav Shlomo Zalman reasoned that this would, seemingly, depend upon the scholar’s nature, as if he does not generally enjoy public speaking, then inviting him to speak under such circumstances could, indeed, be in violation of this Torah command as understood by Rabbenu Yona.
It should be noted, in conclusion, that the Sefer Ha-chinukh (346) writes that this prohibition applies only when the formal laws of eved ivri apply, but that it is nevertheless proper to abide by this rule even in one’s household. As the Minchat Chinukh explains, the Sefer Ha-chinukh does not accept Rabbenu Yona’s view, but does acknowledge that the technical prohibition relevant to the master/servant relationship serves as an instructive ethical model that should be followed in our dealings with all people, particularly within the family.
(See Rav Reuven Golan’s Be’eira Shel Torah, Parashat Behar, 5776, p. 2.)