Fair Treatment of the Worker

לא תעשק שכיר עני ואביון מאחיך מגרך אשר בארצך בשעריך ביומו תתן שכרו ולא תבוא עליו השמש כי עני הוא ואליו הוא נשא את נפשו

“You shall not abuse a needy or destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and his life depends on it; or else he will cry to Adonai against you and you will incur guilt.”

-Deuteronomy 24:14-15

“Abusive labor practices constitute a hillul Hashem, a violation of God’s name.”

-from the 2008 Union For Reform Judaism Resolution on Worker Rights

According to the Torah, work is sacred. In his comment on the verse, “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor…(Exodus 23:12),” Rabbi Judah HaNasi taught, “Just as the Jewish people were given the positive commandment of Shabbat, so were they given the commandment of working.”[1]

Work is an essential part of the human condition, so Judaism teaches we have a responsibility to protect the dignity and rights of workers. The Torah forbids us from wronging or oppressing the stranger and we may not abuse a laborer who is needy or destitute. We are also not allowed to withhold their wages. According to the Talmud, if we do this we deprive a laborer of life, because he risked his life for his work and his life depends on his wages. Elsewhere we learn from a story that worker rights go beyond the letter of the law and extend to the spirit of the law:

Hands tied up with rope against dark skySome porters negligently broke a barrel of wine belonging to Rava bar Rav Huna. He seized their garments, so they went and complained to Rav. “Return their garments,” ordered Rav. “Is that the law?” Rava bar Rav Huna asked. “Even so (do the right thing),” Rav replied, “’So you may walk in the way of good men’ (Proverbs 11:20).” Their garments having being returned, the men observed, “We are poor and have worked all day, and are in need. Do we get nothing?” Rav ordered: “Go and pay them.” “Is that the law?” Rav bar Rav Huna asked. “Even so,” Rav replied. “’And keep the path of the righteous’ (Proverbs 11:20).”[2]

From this text, the Rabbis teach that we are forbidden to gain through the degradation of another human being. This violates k’vod ha’briyot, human dignity. Instead, God commands us to uphold the cause of the stranger; for once we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Also, in Judaism we learn that fair treatment of workers depends on the principle that all employer-employee relationships should follow local customs. The Biblical and Rabbinic texts establish a base for the relationship, but local customs can add a range of benefits and prohibit employers from establishing agreements that are less favorable that the prevailing local wages and benefits. Today, Federal, state and local labor laws are, in effect, “custom” and are given the status of religious law. This expands worker rights beyond those granted in Jewish religious law and provides an extra measure of protection of those rights.[3]

Ultimately, we have a responsibility to acknowledge and honor the laborer (a partner in creation), his labor (an act of creation), and the fruit of his labor (the produced good itself). We are called to see past the finished goods we purchase and connect the choices of our lives to the path the finished good travelled, and to the many hands that helped make it possible. In turn, this opens us to opportunities to do our part to insure that workers are fairly treated. When we do this, the products we consume become imbued with the ingredients of justice and fairness.

[1] Mekhilta of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, cited in Perry, Michael S. “Labor Rights in the Jewish Tradition,” Jewish Labor Committee, 1993. Page 3.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia, 83a.

[3] Perry, Michael S. “Labor Rights in the Jewish Tradition,” Jewish Labor Committee, 1993. Page 13.