As we prepare to celebrate the Israelites’ liberation from slavery, it is worthwhile considering the fact that before labor laws, employee unions and the minimum wage were established, the Torah made clear an employer's obligations to his or her employees:
"You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether [a Jew] or [a non-Jew]…You must pay his wages on the same day, before the sun sets." (Deuteronomy 24:14-15)
In modern times, the latter law that employees be paid without delay, applies truly to day laborers, baby-sitters, handymen and other people assumed to need their wages immediately. For those employees who are paid weekly or monthly, Jewish law obligates the employer to render payment "no later than nightfall on the last day of the week or month."
These instructions, handed down from God, were meant to ensure fairness and restrict slavery. The commandment, "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer," speaks directly to the issue of slave labor and unethical business practice. As the Babylonian Talmud teaches, "Why did this worker climb the ladder [to build a house], suspend himself from a tree [to pick fruit], and risk death? Was it not for his wages?"
Payment for services rendered is not just an expectation, but a requirement. Even if an employer possesses significant wealth and power over her employee, she may not use her position to delay or deny payment. In addition to fair and prompt pay, Jewish law also compels an employer to treat his worker with respect. As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes in Jewish Wisdom, "one who acts…unjustly toward his or her social inferior should expect to be treated with an equal lack of respect and justice by God, everyone's ultimate superior."
Employees, as well, as held to a standard of conduct in Jewish law. The Talmud decrees that one must "not plough with his ox at night and hire it out by day…and he must not undertake fasts or other ascetic deprivations…" because if he is weak, he will be less able to complete the tasks for which he has been hired. Rabbi Telushkin equates arriving at work "with a hangover or groggy from lack of sleep" as stealing from one's boss.
Some things to consider:
- How have Jewish "labor laws" evolved over the centuries?
- Why does Telushkin equate a low performance level with thievery?