Virtually everyone, at some point in his or her life, is an employee or an employer, and almost everyone has experienced both healthy and unhealthy work environments. Because the work we do influences our identities, social relations, and financial status, what happens in the workplace reverberates far beyond the office.
Our communal identity, too, reflects our experience as workers. The central narrative of the Jewish people involves our liberation from slavery, perhaps the worst imaginable work environment. Similarly, we cannot tell the story of Jews in America without mentioning the immigrant workers who suffered at the hands of sweatshop bosses and who created the first unions.
Given the centrality of work throughout Jewish history, it is no wonder that Jewish law expends significant energy on defining a set of labor laws designed to create a balanced relationship between employers and employees. Within these laws, each party has obligations toward the other and expectations of the other. Thus, employers are forbidden from delaying payment to workers, and employees are required to work diligently and not to steal employers’ time.
Obligations on Employers
While making certain demands on workers, the bulk of Jewish labor law imposes obligations on employers. This emphasis on the responsibilities of employers reflects an understanding of the essential power imbalance between employers and employees, as well as an internalization of the exodus narrative. Often cited within discussions of labor law is the biblical verse, “they are my servants” (Leviticus 25:43), understood by the rabbis to imply “and not servants to servants.” The experience of slavery and redemption instills within the lawmakers a wariness about any situation in which one person might, de facto, become the servant of another.
The central biblical text on the obligation of employers emphasizes the poverty of workers:
“Do not oppress the hired laborer who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your people or one of the sojourners in your land within your gates. Give him his wages in the daytime, and do not let the sun set on them, for he is poor, and his life depends on them, lest he cry out to God about you, for this will be counted as a sin for you” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).
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