Jewish employment of Christians as servants was widespread in Eastern Europe by the Middle Ages. From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, most Jewish-owned businesses and leaseholds hired such servants, as did families and organizations at all levels of Jewish society. Indeed it was the rare Jewish family, including those in the lower social strata, that did not employ them.
Jewish servants, especially unmarried girls, were of course also hired by Jewish families, but Jewish communal institutions strictly regulated the terms of their service: employers had to care for them for four weeks in case of illness, and also were expected to contribute toward the dowries of unmarried Jewish girls. By contrast, agreements with non-Jewish servants did not include such “social security” regulations. Non-Jewish servants were chiefly necessary so that families could observe Jewish holidays and especially the Sabbath. A non-Jew who worked for Jews on the Sabbath (the so-called shabes goy) was necessary especially for milking cows, heating houses during the winter, and extinguishing candles. Their role was especially important in Jewish-owned inns, breweries, and mills, which could not be shut for the Sabbath. The roles of servants presented problems from a halakhic (Jewish legal) point of view.
In addition, church doctrine in countries such as Poland declared that Jews had to hold a subordinate position to Christians. From 1267 on, Polish church synods repeatedly prohibited Christians from being employed as servants by Jews, and the doctrine was reinforced by legislation in the Sejm (parliament) beginning in 1565; these restrictions applied only to Jews. The church tried to use direct religious sanctions, within the limits of its own authority, against Christian servants hired by Jews: these servants were denied Communion by the resolutions of several synods, and Jews were threatened with heavy fines. However, it became less and less practical for the church to enforce its doctrine, especially in Poland, where Jewish involvement in economic activities increased steadily in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Christian servants employed by Jews came from a range of ethnic groups and religious denominations: Rusyns (Ruthenians), Poles, and Germans, who could be Orthodox Christian, Catholic, Uniate, or Lutheran. Muslim Tatars were also among the groups. The servants formed three categories: the first group included servants who worked for the Jewish community; the second group mainly served Jewish leaseholds and businesses; and the third group consisted mostly of females who were employed in Jewish households to be wet nurses, governesses, maids, and cooks.
The first group of servants performed tasks such as extinguishing candles in synagogues on Sabbath and other holidays; guarding Jewish cemeteries; performing as the character of Haman in purim-shpils; and acting as undertakers. The second group consisted of serfs performing corvée on behalf of a leasehold, or were hired by Jewish leaseholders. The power of the church could not overcome economic interests when Jews were used as leaseholders on the lands owned by nobility; Jews of that status had, in contradiction to all canons, authority over Christian serfs and servants (there were even cases in which leaseholds were granted to Jews even on ecclesiastic estates).
A third group of servants worked within households, having close contact with Jewish families and learning their lifestyles. Some, especially those who cared for children, not only learned Yiddish and the Jewish way of life; they also possibly influenced it. Polish and Ruthenian languages were often learned from such servants (some Jews also employed non-Jewish teachers to instruct children in those languages). These servants learned the rules of kashrut and other Jewish religious rules not only by observation, but also through active participation.
The church’s restrictions on using Christian wet nurses and governesses were particularly severe, since unlike other servants these were women already lodged in Jewish houses. To enforce the rule, the prohibition against employment of wet nurses and governesses was supported both by legislation and royal edict. Jewish councils, which feared libel and persecution, echoed the church’s prohibitions and repeated them in their own regulations. The Jewish public, however, could not abide by all of these restrictions because of family needs around the Sabbath and holidays. A Jewish woman, for example, was allowed to nurse her own baby on the Sabbath, but not another woman’s, even for health reasons.
Both change and continuity characterized master–servant relations in Jewish society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Non-Jewish servants continued to be employed in traditional Jewish society for the same reasons of Sabbath observance. However, the rapidly growing Jewish bourgeoisie adopted the lifestyle of this stratum in Christian society, including the employment of servants as a status symbol. As Jews began to hire Jewish servants for reasons other than to provide traditional social aid to poor girls, the “social security” communal regulations became invalid.
Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson, “Takanot isure shabat be-Polin u-mashma‘utam ha-ḥevratit veha-kalkalit,” Tsiyon 21 (1957): 183–206; Jacob (Jakub) Goldberg, “Poles and Jews in the 17th and 18th Centuries: Rejection or Acceptance,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 22.2 (1974): 248–282; Judith Kalik, “Christian Servants Employed by Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 17th and 18th Centuries,” Polin 14 (2001): 259–270; Jacob Katz, The “Shabbes Goy”: A Study in Halakhic Flexibility, trans. Yoel Lerner (Philadelphia, 1992); Adam Kaźimierczyk, “The Problem of Christian Servants as Reflected in the Legal Codes of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the Second Half of the Seventeenth Century and in the Saxon Period,” Gal-ed 15–16 (1997): 23–40.