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?