Workers' Rights

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?

(יג) לֹֽא־תַעֲשֹׁ֥ק אֶת־רֵֽעֲךָ֖ וְלֹ֣א תִגְזֹ֑ל לֹֽא־תָלִ֞ין פְּעֻלַּ֥ת שָׂכִ֛יר אִתְּךָ֖ עַד־בֹּֽקֶר׃

(13) You shall not oppress your fellow and you shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.

  • 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?
(י) כִּֽי־תַשֶּׁ֥ה בְרֵֽעֲךָ מַשַּׁ֣את מְא֑וּמָה לֹא־תָבֹ֥א אֶל־בֵּית֖וֹ לַעֲבֹ֥ט עֲבֹטֽוֹ׃ (יא) בַּח֖וּץ תַּעֲמֹ֑ד וְהָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ נֹשֶׁ֣ה ב֔וֹ יוֹצִ֥יא אֵלֶ֛יךָ אֶֽת־הַעֲב֖וֹט הַחֽוּצָה׃ (יב) וְאִם־אִ֥ישׁ עָנִ֖י ה֑וּא לֹ֥א תִשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּעֲבֹטֽוֹ׃ (יג) הָשֵׁב֩ תָּשִׁ֨יב ל֤וֹ אֶֽת־הַעֲבוֹט֙ כְּבֹ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וְשָׁכַ֥ב בְּשַׂלְמָת֖וֹ וּבֵֽרֲכֶ֑ךָּ וּלְךָ֙ תִּהְיֶ֣ה צְדָקָ֔ה לִפְנֵ֖י ה' אֱלֹקֶֽיךָ׃ (ס) (יד) לֹא־תַעֲשֹׁ֥ק שָׂכִ֖יר עָנִ֣י וְאֶבְי֑וֹן מֵאַחֶ֕יךָ א֧וֹ מִגֵּרְךָ֛ אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּאַרְצְךָ֖ בִּשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ׃ (טו) בְּיוֹמוֹ֩ תִתֵּ֨ן שְׂכָר֜וֹ וְֽלֹא־תָב֧וֹא עָלָ֣יו הַשֶּׁ֗מֶשׁ כִּ֤י עָנִי֙ ה֔וּא וְאֵלָ֕יו ה֥וּא נֹשֵׂ֖א אֶת־נַפְשׁ֑וֹ וְלֹֽא־יִקְרָ֤א עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ אֶל־ה' וְהָיָ֥ה בְךָ֖ חֵֽטְא׃ (ס)

(10) When you make a loan of any sort to your countryman, you must not enter his house to seize his pledge. (11) You must remain outside, while the man to whom you made the loan brings the pledge out to you. (12) If he is a needy man, you shall not go to sleep in his pledge; (13) you must return the pledge to him at sundown, that he may sleep in his cloth and bless you; and it will be to your merit before the LORD your God. (14) You shall not oppress a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. (15) You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and his life depends on it; else he will cry to the LORD against you and you will incur guilt.

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?

(א) לא תעשוק שכיר.

והרי כבר נאמר [לא תעשוק את רעך] ולא תגזול?

מלמד שכל הכובש שכר שכיר, עובר בה' לאוין [ועשה,

משום פעולת שכיר,

משום בל תעשוק

ומשום בל תגזול

ומשום ביומו תתן שכרו

ומשום ולא תבא עליו השמש.

(1) "You shall not oppress a laborer" (Deut. 24:14):

But has it not already been said that "You shall not oppress your fellow and you shall not commit robbery" (Lev. 19:13)?!

[Why does Deuteronomy repeat a commandment that was already issued?]

We are hereby taught that one who holds back the wages of a hired laborer transgresses five negative commandments and one positive commandment:

  • "The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning," (Lev 19:13)
  • "You shall not oppress your fellow," (Lev 19:13) and
  • "You shall not commit robbery." (Lev 19:13)
  • "You must pay him wages on the same day," (Deut 24:15), and
  • "Before the sun sets." (Deut 24:15)

[And the commandment that is the impetus for this lesson, "You shall not oppress a laborer." (Deut 24:14)]

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?

נושא את נפשו

מפני מה עלה זה בכבש ונתלה באילן ומסר את עצמו למיתה לא על שכרו

דבר אחר ואליו הוא נושא את נפשו כל הכובש שכר שכיר כאילו נוטל נפשו ממנו

“His life depends on it” (Deut 24:15)

For what reason did this laborer ascend on a ramp or suspend himself from a tree and risk death to himself? Was it not for his wages?

Alternatively, “his life depends on it” means that when one who withholds the wages of a hired laborer, it is like taking his life from him.

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.

(א) הַשּׂוֹכֵר אֶת הַפּוֹעֲלִים וְאָמַר לָהֶם לְהַשְׁכִּים וּלְהַעֲרִיב, מְקוֹם שֶׁנָּהֲגוּ שֶׁלֹּא לְהַשְׁכִּים וְשֶׁלֹּא לְהַעֲרִיב, אֵינוֹ רַשַּׁאי לְכוֹפָן. מְקוֹם שֶׁנָּהֲגוּ לָזוּן, יָזוּן. לְסַפֵּק בִּמְתִיקָה, יְסַפֵּק. הַכֹּל כְּמִנְהַג הַמְּדִינָה.

מַעֲשֶׂה בְּרַבִּי יוֹחָנָן בֶּן מַתְיָא שֶׁאָמַר לִבְנוֹ, צֵא שְׂכֹר לָנוּ פוֹעֲלִים.

הָלַךְ וּפָסַק לָהֶם מְזוֹנוֹת. וּכְשֶׁבָּא אֵצֶל אָבִיו, אָמַר לוֹ, בְּנִי, אֲפִלּוּ אִם אַתָּה עוֹשֶׂה לָהֶם כִּסְעֻדַּת שְׁלֹמֹה בִשְׁעָתוֹ, לֹא יָצָאתָ יְדֵי חוֹבָתְךָ עִמָּהֶן, שֶׁהֵן בְּנֵי אַבְרָהָם יִצְחָק וְיַעֲקֹב. אֶלָּא עַד שֶׁלֹּא יַתְחִילוּ בַמְּלָאכָה צֵא וֶאֱמֹר לָהֶם, עַל מְנָת שֶׁאֵין לָכֶם עָלַי אֶלָּא פַת וְקִטְנִית בִּלְבַד.

רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר, לֹא הָיָה צָרִיךְ לוֹמַר, הַכֹּל כְּמִנְהַג הַמְּדִינָה:

(1) If one hired laborers and told them to work early or to work late, in a place where the custom is not to work early or work late, one has no right to compel them to do so. In a place where the custom is to give them food, one gives them food, and where the custom is to provide them with sweet food, one provides it. Everything should follow local custom.

It once happened that Rabbi Yokhanan ben Mattia said to his son: “Go and hire laborers for us.”

He went and struck a deal to provide them with food. When he came to his father, his father said to him, “My son, even if you make them a banquet like Solomon’s in his time you will not have fulfilled your obligation to them, for they are sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Instead, before they begin to work go and say to them, “On condition that I am not bound to give you more than bread and beans only.”

Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel says: “It was not necessary to speak thus, for everything should follow local use.”

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?

גמ׳ פשיטא

לא 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


[With regard to the Mishnah’s statement that an employer may not compel his laborers to rise exceptionally early and continue working until exceptionally late, the Gemara asks]: Isn’t this obvious?

No, it's necessary in the specific case where the employer increased workers' wages, or else you would think that the employer could say, "I increased your wages with the understanding that you would rise early and continue working late for me."

This is what the Mishnah come to teach: That the laborers can say, "When you increased our wages, it was with the understanding that we would perform quality work for you.

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?