Jewish Texts on Labor Law [AJWS]
BabylonianTalmud, Baba Metzia 112a
ואידך ההוא מיבעי ליה לכדתניא (דברים כ"ד) , ואליו הוא נשא את נפשו, מפני מה עלה זה בכבש ונתלה באילן ומסר את עצמו למיתה - לא על שכרו? דבר אחר: ואליו הוא נשא את נפשו - כל הכובש שכר שכיר כאילו נוטל נפשו ממנו.
The verse (in Deuteronomy 24) states, “And for it, he risks his life” Why did this worker climb a high ramp to work or suspend himself on the tree to collect its fruits, placing himself in mortal danger? Was it not for his wage? Another explanation translates the verse as follows: “On it he stakes his life.” Whoever withholds the wages of an employee is considered as if he took his life from him. [AJWS translation]
Suggested Discussion Questions

1. Who are the players in this text – seen and unseen?
2. What power dynamics are at play?
3. In what ways are wages for work equal to life itself?

Saul Berman, "Labor on the Bima," a Publication of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice .
The rabbis are here teaching us a profound lesson. The most demeaning form of oppression of a laborer is to assign to him meaningless work. The most ruthless form of abuse of a laborer is to have him engage in an activity which serves no productive purpose and, therefore, prevents him from having any pride in his achievement. The measure of proper treatment of labor is not simply the physical rigors to which the employee is exposed. The employer has a responsibility to preserve the dignity of the employee through assuring that he or she can achieve a sense of meaning in the labor which she performs. There is an apocryphal tale told about Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of Judaism’s Mussar [ethics] movement. Every year before Pesach, Rabbi Salanter would inspect matzah bakeries to check their kashrut. One confident owner couldn’t wait to show off how efficient his matzah production had become. When Rabbi Salanter finished the inspection, though, he declared that the bakery was in violation of the halakhic prohibition against blood in food. “Your sense of efficiency, together with the unacceptable demands placed upon your workers, shows that their blood is mixed into the food produced in this bakery,” he said. Even though the blood was purely metaphoric, Rabbi Salanter would not certify the kashrut of the matzah.
Suggested Discussion Questions

1. What principle of work is the author asking employers to follow?
2. What constituencies are often given the worst employment options? What allows this to continue?

Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 83a
צריכא, דטפא להו אאגרייהו. מהו דתימא, אמר להו: הא דטפאי לכו אאגרייכו - אדעתא דמקדמיתו ומחשכיתו בהדאי, קא משמע לן דאמרו ליה: האי דטפת לן - אדעתא דעבדינן לך עבידתא שפירתא.
We need [this example in the Mishnah specifying that local custom undermines an employer’s stipulation that workers begin early and stay late] for the case in which the employer raises the workers’ wages. In the case in which he says to them, “I raised your wages in order that you would begin work early and stay late,” they may reply, “You raised our wages in order that we would do better work.” [Soncino translation]
Mishna, Baba Metzia 7:1
השוכר את הפועלים ואמר להם להשכים ולהעריב- מקום שנהגו שלא להשכים ושלא להעריב אינו רשאי לכופן. מקום שנהגו לזון- יזון. לספק במתיקה -יספק. הכל כמנהג המדינה. מעשה ברבי יוחנן בן מתיא שאמר לבנו "צא שכור לנו פועלים" .הלך ופסק להם מזונות וכשבא אצל אביו אמר לו "בני אפילו אם אתה עושה להם כסעודת שלמה בשעתו לא יצאת ידי חובתך עמהן שהן בני אברהם יצחק ויעקב אלא עד שלא יתחילו במלאכה צא ואמור להם 'על מנת שאין לכם עלי אלא פת וקטנית בלבד' ".רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר: לא היה צריך לומר הכל כמנהג המדינה:
If one hired laborers and ordered them to work early and late- (in) a place where it is customary not to work early or not to work late, he has no right to compel them. (In) a place where it is customary to give (them) food; to provide relish, he must provide relish; everything (must be done) according to the local custom. It once happened that Rabbi Yochanan ben Massia said to his son: ‘Go out (and) hire laborers for us.’ He went, and agreed to give them food. When he came to his father, he said to him: ‘My son even if you prepare for them (a meal) like Solomon’s banquet in his time, you have not discharged your duty toward them, for they are children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Rather, before they start work, go out and say to them: ‘On condition that you have no claim upon me other than bread and beans.’ Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: He did not have to say (it); everything is according to the local custom. [Soncino translation]
Deuteronomy 24:14-15
לֹא תַעֲשֹׁק שָׂכִיר עָנִי וְאֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחֶיךָ אוֹ מִגֵּרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בְּאַרְצְךָ בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ: בְּיוֹמוֹ תִתֵּן שְׂכָרוֹ וְלֹא תָבוֹא עָלָיו הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ כִּי עָנִי הוּא וְאֵלָיו הוּא נֹשֵׂא אֶת נַפְשׁוֹ וְלֹא יִקְרָא עָלֶיךָ אֶל ה' וְהָיָה בְךָ חֵטְא:
You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers, or one of the strangers who are in your land inside your gates; At his day you shall give him his wages, nor shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and his life depends upon it; lest he cry against you to the Lord and it be a sin for you. [translation by Artscroll, adapted]
Suggested Discussion Questions

1. To whom do these rules apply?
2. What assumptions are made about the various players in the text?
3. How does the poor person's crying cause a sin upon the employer? If the poor person does not cry out is the employer free of sin?