The current pandemic exposes both the essential value of workers and their vulnerability. Even as many workers are sheltering at home, those whose work is considered essential have continued to serve the public, exposing themselves and their family members to grave risks. Healthcare workers, long-term care providers and transit workers have died after contracting COVID-19 at work. During surges of infection, hospital workers carry the emotional and moral burdens of trying to help patients when medical needs overwhelm hospital capacity. Many workers have been pressed to serve without the personal protection equipment they are entitled to. At the same time, with whole industries shut down, many workers have been furloughed or lost their jobs altogether.
Jewish teachings affirm the dignity and value of all kinds of work. Jewish law addresses workers' vulnerability by affirming their rights to fair compensation and healthy working conditions. How can we ensure the dignity and security of essential workers, of unemployed workers and of all who work for a living?
- In your reading, how many different commandments are contained within this verse? What are they, and how do they relate to each other? What unifies the different topics that come together in the verse?
- Why does the Torah prohibit holding on to a laborer's wages until morning? What ethical principle do you draw from this commandment?
- In today's economic world, what would it mean to oppress a laborer? What would it mean to rob from a laborer? What laws or practices offer protection against these abuses?
This extended passage from Deuteronomy bring together protections for debtors, poor people and hired laborers.
- Why does the Torah here treat workers' rights within the context of protections for the poor?
- Why do you think the Torah prohibits creditors from entering the homes of the people who owe them pledges? How does a home protect human dignity? What kind of boundaries are in place to protect the dignity of workers today?
- Compare and contrast Deut. 24:15 to Lev. 9:13 above. How does Deuteronomy expand on Leviticus?
This terse comment in an early midrashic work observes that Deuteronomy's charge not to oppress a laborer seems redundant, given that there is a commandment not to oppress one's fellow. The Midrash uses the repetitive language to build a bridge between the two biblical passages and proposes that the act of withholding a laborer's wages transgresses six separate commandments that are enumerated within the two passages. Five of these commandments are negative "Thou shall nots" and one is the positive "You must." (A similar tradition can be found in the Talmud, Bava Metzia 111a.)
- As the Midrash notes, the specific act of oppressing a worker is presumably included in the more general prohibition against oppressing any person. Are you persuaded by the way the midrash explains the apparent redundancy? How do you account for it? Why do you think the Torah explicitly prohibits the oppression of workers in particular?
- According to the Midrash, the Torah views the oppression of laborers as especially grave and extends special legal measures to protect workers. What would be different if today's society adhered to such a high level of concern for workers?
This passage is from the Talmud's citations of an ancient midrashic tradition that focuses on the language of Deut. 24:14. It offers two alternative interpretations of the phrase "his life depends on it," which can also be translated, "his soul depends on it." The first interpretation focuses on the motivation of the laborer. The second interpretation emphasizes the severity of sin of delaying their wages.
- The first interpretation focuses in on the dangers of physical labor. According to this interpretation, why is the Torah so adamant about protecting a worker's timely compensation?
- Right now, workers in a variety of sectors labor in dangerous conditions, at risk to exposure to COVID-19. What policies or practices can we enact to acknowledge the dangers they face.
This Mishnah prescribes that the conditions of contracted labor must comply with local custom with regard to the hours and food. The anecdote comes to demonstrate the principle.
- In what ways does this emphasis on local custom protect the welfare of laborers? In what ways does it protect the interests of the employer?
- The Mishnah does not allow a laborer to negotiate to work more hours than local custom permits. Commenting on this, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote that this text "teaches that not everything can be bought and not everything can be sold. The freedom to negotiate has limits which impose themselves in the name of freedom itself." (Nine Talmudic Readings, trans. by Annette Aronowicz (2019),137. How does this limit serve the cause of human freedom?
- In the anecdote, what do you think Rabbi Yokhanan ben Mattia means when he says the workers are entitled to extravagant feasts? Based on your understanding of this story, would Rabbi Yokhanan treat non-Jewish workers differently than Jewish workers?
- In your reading, does the anecdote serve to promote the dignity of workers, or to undermine their standing? Are there other ways to read this story?
- What does this passage suggest about the importance of employment contracts and about what they should include?
This passage is the talmudic discussion of the mishnah above, M. Bava Metzia 7:1. The Talmud asks about an apparent redundancy in the mishnah's language: If there is an overriding principle that local custom governs labor contracts, why does the Mishnah specify that the employer cannot require workers to come early or stay late when that is not local custom? The Talmud produces a scenario in which this specification could be important. The Talmud explains that even in the case where an employer offered and a worker accepted an increase in wages--an instance in which you might think the employer could ask for more hours than custom dictates--the employer still must honor local custom. The Talmud not only reinforces the limits set by the Talmud, it arguably enhances the workers' position, establishing that pay raises properly award high quality work. Increased wages do not obligate the workers to accept longer hours.
- To what degree does our contemporary society have "local custom" with regard to labor?
- When you are employing workers in your home, at work, or through a community organization, how do you determine what is fair payment and what are fair conditions? What aspect of work expectations and compensation should be adjusted in consideration of the threat of COVID-19.
- When you consider your own experience as a worker, what aspects of work make you feel valued?
- In what ways do the decisions you make at home, at work or through your community service have implications for workers?
Jewish teachings address the vulnerability of workers by protecting their dignity and upholding their rights to fair and timely compensation and to healthy working conditions. While rabbinic law presumes that local customs will protect workers from unfair demands, the realities of today's society offer few protections to the most vulnerable workers.
In this time of increased physical danger and economic hardship, what steps can we take to honor the labor and the risks that some workers undertake? With rising unemployment and shrinking economic opportunities, what can we do to uphold the dignity and livelihoods of workers who are unemployed and underemployed? In what ways can our decisions mitigate harm to those we employ?