Nature of the Bondage

Exegetical Approaches

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Commentators paint vastly different pictures of the period of bondage in Egypt.  The majority of sources maintain that the Israelites were slaves to the State rather than individuals. Most of these assume that the Israelites were singled out for oppression and forced to perform back-breaking labor under extremely harsh conditions.  R. Yosef Bekhor Shor, in contrast, suggests that the lot of the Israelites was neither particularly unique, nor as oppressive as is often imagined.  They were forced to labor for the king for weeks at a time, but were given leave to return home when their shifts were over.  Finally, Ramban and others view the enslavement as including both a labor tax to the State and bondage to individual Egyptians.  Any Egyptian who so desired could force an Israelite to work for him, but even according to this position, they were not bought and sold from hand to hand.

Slaves to the State

The enslavement took the form of a labor tax to the State.  This opinion subdivides regarding the nature and conditions of this tax:

Sweatshop Conditions

The Israelites were forced to labor year-round for Paroh under extremely harsh conditions.

"וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים" – Most of these sources1 understand that this refers to a labor tax.2 The nation was conscripted to work in building storehouses for the State, as per the end of the verse: "וַיִּבֶן עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת לְפַרְעֹה אֶת פִּתֹם וְאֶת רַעַמְסֵס".
Description of slavery in Shemot 5 – The description of the officers in charge of laborers, the set quotas of bricks, and Moshe's need to receive permission from Paroh (and not individual slave owners) for the nation's three day furlough, all support the idea that the nation were slaves to the State.
"וַיַּעֲבִדוּ מִצְרַיִם אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל" – These sources understand "מִצְרַיִם" to refer to the State of Egypt, rather than lay Egyptians.  Thus, the worsening of the conditions in this second stage refers solely to the intensity of the labor and not to the Israelites being enslaved by the Egyptian nation at large.  R. Hoffmann suggests that, though initially the Israelites labored on building projects needed for the public, from this point on they were worked beyond their physical capabilities, solely for the purpose of oppression.3
"בְּפָרֶךְ" – These sources see in this word evidence of the severity of the slavery:
  • Physical suffering – Rashi, Shadal, and R. Hoffmann all assert that the word "פָרֶךְ" relates to "breaking"4 and that the verse refers to the back-breaking labor imposed on the Israelites.
  • Emotional suffering – HaKetav VeHaKabbalah suggests that the word hints to emotional suffering caused by the labor.  He understands the root "פרך" to mean "stop"5 and explains that the Egyptians would constantly stop the Israelites mid-project to work on another one.  This moving from job to job without ever seeing their labor come to fruition was as painful to the soul as the hard toil was to their bodies.
"וַיְמָרְרוּ אֶת חַיֵּיהֶם בַּעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה" – Ralbag claims that Paroh intentionally gave the nation physically difficult labor (as opposed to metallurgy or the like) so as to weaken and destroy their bodies.
"לֹא תֹאסִפוּן לָתֵת תֶּבֶן לָעָם" – The new decree that the nation collect their own straw suggests that efficiency was not foremost in Paroh's mind, but rather oppression.
Were the Israelites the only ones taxed? This position would likely claim that the Israelites were singled out to be oppressed. This works with the fact that Shemot 1 presents the oppression as a solution to the particular demographic problem posed by the Israelites.
Where did the Israelites live? Although the labor conditions were severe, the Israelites had their own homes to which they, at least sometimes, returned.
Free time? It is not clear how many hours a day the slaves were forced to work.  The fact that Paroh's taskmasters question why people did not finish their quotas of bricks suggests that the people ended their labor at a certain hour and were not forced to stay until the work was completed.6
Freedom of movement – These sources offer different opinions to explain how some of the Israelites7 appear to have freedom of movement.  Rashi, following R. Yehoshua b. Levi5:16About Shemot Rabbah, suggests that the Tribe of Levi was exempt from the enslavement. In contrast, Ralbag maintains that people who could afford to pay a monetary tax were not forced to work.  See Who was Enslaved in Egypt for more.
Owned possessions – The verses of Shemot testify that, unlike concentration camp prisoners, the Israelites had their own possessions including sheep and cattle.
Genocide – Ralbag and R. Hoffmann assert that the decree of genocide was probably very short-lived and was in effect only in the period around Moshe's birth.  They note that otherwise there should have been no males under the age of 80 at the Exodus,8 which is clearly not the case.9  Moreover, whenever the Torah looks back to the oppression in Egypt, it highlights the enslavement and never mentions the attempted genocide, suggesting that the former was the major problem.10
Purpose of punishment – According to this approach, Paroh himself is the focus of Hashem's wrath, as he bore the primary responsibility for the slavery.  If so, though, it is unclear why also lay Egyptians should have been punished by the Plagues. These sources might suggest that the Plagues were primarily meant to be educative rather than retributive, teaching the Egyptians to recognize Hashem.  See Purpose of the Plagues for more.
Despoiling Egypt – If the Egyptian commoners were not responsible for the slavery, then the gold and silver vessels received from the Egyptians could not have been reparations or remuneration for the Israelites' forced labor.  For more, see Reparations and Despoiling Egypt.
"לֹא תְתַעֵב מִצְרִי כִּי גֵר הָיִיתָ בְאַרְצוֹ" – The reason for this command may be that only Paroh bore the primary responsibility for the slavery, not the average Egyptian.11

Corvée Labor

The nation worked in rotation; each Israelite labored for several weeks or months at a time, but was then free to return home until his next shift.

וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים – R"Y Bekhor Shor understands this to refer to a labor tax rather than a monetary one.13
Biblical parallels – R"Y Bekhor Shor compares this labor tax to that imposed by Shelomo for his building works, where the people would work for one month and then return home for two.14  If so, Paroh's actions were not all that different from that of other monarchs who forced certain segments of the population to work for them for set periods of time.15
Were the Israelites the only ones taxed? R"Y Bekhor Shor asserts that the rest of the Egyptians paid a different tax to Paroh, giving a fifth of their crops to the king.16  Precisely because the Children of Israel were exempt from this tax,17 they were instead forced to build the storehouses for the wheat.18  Even R"Y Bekhor Shor agrees, however, that the forced labor later intensified and extended to other types of work including sowing and irrigation.
Owned homes and possessions – R"Y Bekhor Shor explains that since the Israelites were not always working for Paroh, they maintained their own homes and possessions19 and had time to support their own families.20  In fact, Hashem's command that the Israelites request vessels "מִגָּרַת בֵּיתָהּ", suggests that they might even have had Egyptian tenants.21
Freedom of movement – This position could explain that Aharon had the flexibility to meet Moshe in the wilderness because he was not working at the time.  Aharon would not have been unique; many others at any given time might also have been able to leave the country for a short period.
Did women and children work as well? R"Y Bekhor Shor might posit that the building was limited to men, as in other cases of conscripted labor.  This would explain how Yocheved and Miriam22 appear to not be enslaved in Shemot 2.
Payment to Yocheved – According to this position, many Israelites may have had other employment during the periods when they were not working for Paroh.  Thus, the compensation Paroh's daughter offered Yocheved for nursing her son was simply a normal transaction made between free citizens.
How did having rotating laborers achieve Paroh's objective? R"Y Bekhor Shor claims that Paroh hoped to tire out the people so they would not have the energy at night to have relations and reproduce.23  The difficulty for this approach, though, is that they could have relations during the months that they completely free from work.  Thus, one might instead explain that Paroh was mainly concerned not about the size of the Israelite population per se, but about the possibility that they would join forces with his enemies.  Having a significant portion of the Israelites enslaved at any given time alleviated this concern.
Relations with other Egyptians – If the bondage consisted of statute labor rather than full time slavery, it is possible that the Israelites were not necessarily viewed as particularly degraded members of society24 and that some lay Egyptians and Israelites might have even been on neighborly terms.25
Harshness of the enslavement – R"Y Bekhor Shor learns from the phrase, "וַיַּעֲבִדוּ מִצְרַיִם אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּפָרֶךְ" that the conditions during the periods of forced labor were unusually harsh and that the slaves were given no time to rest.26
Purpose of punishment – This depiction of the slavery raises the possibility that Paroh was being punished not for extremely cruel treatment of the Israelites in enslaving them, but for the genocide of their children27 or for the religious sin of not recognizing Hashem and refusing to grant the Israelites leave to worship Him.  Alternatively, the Plagues taught that any type of forced labor is wrong and deserving of punishment.
"לֹא תְתַעֵב מִצְרִי כִּי גֵר הָיִיתָ בְאַרְצוֹ" – The reason for this command may be that only the king bore the primary responsibility for the slavery, not the common Egyptians.

Slaves to the State and to Individuals

In addition to the Israelites being conscripted to work for Paroh, any Egyptian was able to enslave an Israelite to work for them privately.

"וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים... וַיִּבֶן עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת לְפַרְעֹה" – According to Ramban, this verse describes only the initial stage of oppression in which the people were conscripted to work for the State.  Abarbanel, in contrast, asserts that this verse itself refers to two distinct phases: an initial monetary tax followed by forced labor for Paroh.
"וַיַּעֲבִדוּ מִצְרַיִם אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּפָרֶךְ" – According to these sources, the word "מִצְרַיִם" refers to individual Egyptians.  This verse represents a worsening of the oppression, as lay Egyptians, too, were given permission to take Israelites as their personal slaves.
"וּבְכׇל עֲבֹדָה בַּשָּׂדֶה" – The Midrash Tanchuma and Abarbanel asserts that this refers to working the lands of individual Egyptians.  In contrast, the state sponsored bondage focused on construction.
Were the Israelites unique? R. Hirsch asserts that the root "פרך" means to separate,28 and that the phrase "וַיַּעֲבִדוּ מִצְרַיִם אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּפָרֶךְ" is emphasizing how Paroh singled out and separated the Israelites from the rest of Egyptian citizens by removing their personal rights.
When did they work for individuals? The Tanchuma suggests that the Israelites would put in a full day of work for Paroh, and then, upon returning home at night, lay Egyptians would demand that they work for them in their fields.  Ramban, in contrast, asserts that the Israelites worked for the throne only in rotating shifts.29 This left them available to be taken as house servants during their "free" weeks.  Others might suggest that while some people labored for Paroh, some worked for individuals.
Where did the Israelites live? This position raises the possibility that while some Israelites might have lived in private homes in Goshen, others might have lived with their masters in Egypt proper.  See Where in Egypt Did the Israelites Live for elaboration, and see Whom and Where Did the Plagues Strike for the ramifications this has on understanding the differentiation between Egyptians and Israelites during the Plagues.
Chattel slavery? Even according to this position, the bondage in Egypt did not constitute "chattel slavery" such as found in the American South, where people could be bought and sold from one slave master to another.  Sefer Shemot also betrays no hint of families being torn apart.30
Genocide – Ramban maintains that the decree of genocide could not have lasted more than three years, since Aharon was not affected by it, and we do not hear of it being in effect after Moshe's birth.  He suggests that this perhaps occurred due to the influence of Paroh's daughter.  Abarbanel adds, based on the Tanchuma, that it is also possible that the decree was not unique to Israelite babies,31 but included Egyptians as well.32
Purpose of punishment – According to this approach, the entire Egyptian nation suffered from the plagues because even lay Egyptians participated in the enslavement of the Israelites.
Despoiling Egypt – If the Egyptian commoners were also responsible for the slavery, then the gold and silver vessels received from the Egyptians could have been considered reparations or remuneration for the Israelites' forced labor.  This may be the position adopted by R. Bachya.  For more, see Reparations and Despoiling Egypt.
"לֹא תְתַעֵב מִצְרִי כִּי גֵר הָיִיתָ בְאַרְצוֹ" – Although the entire Egyptian population mistreated the Children of Israel, we are nonetheless instructed to show gratitude for the fact that, initially, the Egyptians welcomed Yaakov and his family, saving them from the famine.