Free Will of the Worker

כי לי בני ישראל עבדים ולא עבדים לעבדים

“For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants. And are not servants to servants.”

-Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 116b

Judaism forbids denying a worker’s free will. Another may not be enslaved and therefore has the right to stop work at any time. While a laborer temporarily surrenders some independence in exchange for employment, he may reassert himself by resigning at any time. This right of resignation originates in Leviticus 25:55, “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants.” The Talmud adds, “And are not servants to servants.”[1] In other words, a laborer may labor for his employer, but he really serves God.

Free Will of the Worker

photo by The Advocacy Project

Workers also have the right to express their free will to satisfy their physical needs. Jewish law gives them the right to eat meals on the job consisting of the food they harvest.[2] If you are working in an orchard, while you are working the fruit is yours to eat. The worker’s free will is also protected if he gets sick or injured. According to the

Rabbis, in biblical times an indentured Hebrew servant who became ill for up to three years was not compelled to make up this lost time to his employer.[3] Workers maintain their freedom by being protected from punishment or coercion during a time of illness.

Judaism also protects the free will of the worker in hazardous conditions, maintaining that workers who are injured in job situations that differ from customary practices are entitled to damages suffered as a consequence of their risk. Further, the Torah strives to protect the free will of the worker with the verse, “Therefore, take good heed unto yourselves,”[4] an injunction against placing oneself in dangerous situations. In this way, workers are prohibited from accepting work that threatens their safety.

Workers may also express their free will to form trade unions, to bargain collectively and to strike when necessary. To demonstrate this, the Talmud teaches there was separate seating in the Temple for different types of workers, in order that tradesmen would benefit from shared self-help. The Rabbis wrote, “When a poor man entered the place he recognized the members of his craft and on applying to that quarter obtained a living for himself and for his family.”[5] Workers also have the right to regulate wages and to make enforceable rules on members of the association. Regarding the rights of day laborers to collectively bargain and to strike, the Rabbis’ reasoning remains consistent with their belief that the laborer may quit at any time since, as we said, he cannot be enslaved.


[1] Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma 116b.

[2] Deuteronomy 23:25

[3] Kiddushin17a.

[4] Deuteronomy 4:15

[5] Sukkah51b.