Human Rights Shabbat – Joseph, Modern Day Slavery and the House Elf

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 9 December 2017

Harry managed not to shout out, but it was a close thing. The little creature on the bed had large, bat-like ears and bulging green eyes the size of tennis balls. Harry knew instantly that this was what had been watching him out of the garden hedge that morning. The creature slipped off the bed and bowed so low that the end of its long thin nose touched the carpet. Harry noticed that it was wearing what looked like an old pillowcase, with rips for arm and leg holes.

“Sit down,” Harry said politely, pointing at the bed.

To his horror, the elf burst into tears – very noisy tears.

“S-sit down!” He wailed. “Never…never ever…”

“I’m sorry,” Harry whispered, “I didn’t mean to offend you or anything.”

“Offend Dobby!” choked the elf. “Dobby has never been asked to sit down by a wizard — like an equal –”

Harry, trying to say “Shh!” and look comforting at the same time, ushered Dobby back onto the bed where he sat hiccoughing, looking like a large and very ugly doll. At last he managed to control himself, and sat with his great eyes fixed on Harry in an expression of watery adoration.

“You can’t have met many decent wizards,” said Harry, trying to cheer him up.

Dobby shook his head. Then, without warning, he leapt up and started banging his head furiously on the window, shouting, “Bad Dobby! Bad Dobby!”

“Dobby had to punish himself, sir” said the elf, who had gone slightly cross eyed. “Dobby almost spoke ill of his family sir…”

“Your family?”

“The wizard family Dobby serves sir…Dobby is a house elf – bound to serve one house and one family for ever. Dobby is always having to punish himself for something, sir. They lets Dobby get on with it, sir. Sometimes they reminds me to do extra punishments … ”

“But why don’t you leave? Escape?”

“A house-elf must be set free, sir. And the family will never set Dobby free … Dobby will serve the family until he dies, sir … ”


When Hermione Granger sets up the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare she has the best of intentions at heart. But she meets a great amount of resistance from witches and wizards who like having house elves to work for them and don’t want to pay for the privilege. The house elves themselves are also resistant to change. They see their freedom as a lack of security and a failure to complete their task.


As mud bloods we see her efforts are laudable and correct, for we view the house elves as slaves, who deserve their own rights, privileges and respect. They serve the same family for many years, until their eventual death, forced to prepare food, clean, and do all chores that their masters command of them.


Many house elves live a contented life. But some, like Dobby, strive for that piece of clothing that sets them free. After years of being mistreated it is no wonder he rebelled and managed to engineer, with the help of Harry Potter of course, a sock from his master, Lucius Malfoy.


Away from the wizarding world, we humans are protected from enslavement by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was signed on the 10th December 1948. On the Shabbat closest to this date we mark Human Rights Shabbat, and this year we are urged to think about this most basic Human Right, the right to freedom. Rene Casin, the Jewish charity which represents the Jewish voice for Human Rights encourages the Jewish community on this Shabbat, and always, to promote and protect the human rights of those who are not free and who still suffer under modern slavery.


For those of us sitting here today, we are lucky to be living a life free from slavery. And yet this does not reflect accurately the world we live in, for there are more slaves today than at any point in human history. In fact there are 13,000 individuals in the UK that still in different forms of slavery even though we live in one of the first countries ever to take steps against the trading and enslavement of people with the passing the Slave Trade Acts of 1807 and 1827.


The slavery may not look traditional with shackles and chains but that does not mean it doesn’t exist. So what does Modern Day Slavery really look like? Perhaps if we turn to our central narrative, the Tanakh, we will see an example.


This week we read the story of Joseph. Joseph starts his life off as the golden child, a favourite of his father, he is child prodigy who is destined for great things. But Joseph’s life takes a drastic change in direction as he is sold to a caravan of Ishmaelites for twenty five pieces of silver. Whilst the passage never states he is purchased as a slave directly, Joseph’s basic human right of freedom is stripped from him, along with his multicoloured coat, first by his brothers, then by the Ishmaelites, and finally by Potiphar and his wife. When Joseph arrives as a stranger in the land, he has no ability to control his own fate. Disadvantaged, he is in the hands of those around him with more power, which leads to his work in Potiphar’s house and his ultimate imprisonment.


Someone is defined as a slave if they are forced to work through physical or emotional threat or abuse, they have restrictions placed on their freedom of movement, they are dehumanised or treated as a commodity. Further a slave is a person who is legal property of another and is forced to obey them, or someone who works very hard without proper renumeration or appreciation. According to the Modern Slavery Act of 2015 we can only determine if a person is being held in slavery or servitude when we take into account all the circumstances. So let us examine the case of Joseph in more detail. Joseph is purchased, making him a commodity, when he is only a child. His circumstances as a foreigner, potentially with no ability to speak the language of this strange land, prescribe that he is vulnerable to forced labour. He is purchased by Potiphar and works in his household, we never hear him consent to his position of work. Finally Joseph ends up imprisoned, held unfairly without trial. Weighing up the sources, I would argue that Joseph is most certainly an example of a slave, showing that even in our most holy of sources, slavery exists and it often happens where we least expect it.


As Jews we live a narrative of travelling from slavery to freedom, so the issue of modern slavery is one that resonates greatly with our Jewish experience. Further our Jewish values demand us to support social action and human rights. So we must encourage the promotion and protection of human rights for those who are not free. The modern slavery act is helping victims to come forward and now the number of identified victims of slavery has risen by 40%. Those who have been identified are often working in nail salons, takeaway restaurants or as domestic and agricultural workers.


The charity Rene Casin, who works with the Jewish community to build support for human rights values amongst British Jewish, has given us tangible ways to add our voice to the call for human rights and to begin tackling modern day slavery. Firstly we can get more informed, using the education resources provided on the charities website. The more we know, the more chance we have of preventing issues. Secondly we can spot the signs by being more aware of the world around us. Finally we can support survivors of slavery by volunteering our time to help create a Jewish community employment scheme for survivors.


May we no longer take our fortune and our freedom for granted. May we join our voices with those already out there and fight for basic human rights for all our fellows. And may we establish a world for the generations to come where all are free. For if not us, who? And if not now, when?