Jewish Employee-Employer Relations

How Jewish law creates a balanced relationship between employers and employees

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The Talmud, discussing the biblical prohibition against delaying the payment of workers, comments:

"Why does he climb a ladder or hang from a tree or risk death? Is it not for his wages? Another interpretation--'His life depends on them' indicates that anyone who denies a hired laborer his wages, it is as though he takes his life from him" (b. Bava Metzia 112a).

The Talmud calls to our attention the extent to which low-wage workers are dependent on their earnings. The lowest-wage workers, the Talmud reminds us, perform the most dangerous and undesirable jobs and are the most likely to starve or otherwise suffer if denied pay.

The understanding of the essential inequality between employers and low-wage employees prompts the rabbis to place additional obligations on the employers and to increase the privileges of the employees. Employees are permitted to eat from the crop they are harvesting, and may quit work in the middle of the day, as long as doing so does not cause irreversible damage to the employer.

In a case, for instance, in which the crop will be lost if not harvested that day and no other workers are available, a worker may not leave in the middle of the day without paying a fine.  In other cases, however, the rabbis permit the worker to quit, again invoking the principle that we are servants to God and not "servants to servants." (Bava Metzia 86b)

If outside factors prevent a worker from completing the assigned task--for instance, if a rainstorm interrupts the harvest, or a sick person whom one has been hired to help dies--the worker, in most cases is compensated for the entire day. This worker, the rabbis understood, is counting on his salary for the day, and would not have accepted the job if not for the promise of a certain wage.

In one case, the Tosefta (a rabbinic work from around the second century that parallels and supplements the Mishnah) mandates that a rabbi must pay a worker in full, even after this worker breaks a jug he was hired to carry. There, the text refers to the biblical verse, "Follow the way of the good and keep the paths of the just" (Proverbs 2:20). Even though, the Tosefta implies, the letter of the law may not require payment, the spirit of the law obligates the employer to take care of the worker, who depends on his wages for survival.

While generally allowing "the custom of the place," to set workers' wages and hours, Jewish law permits the workers to organize amongst themselves and to agree to standard prices. In medieval times, such law led to the establishment of workers' guilds in many Jewish communities. In contemporary times, many legal authorities, including Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Eliezer Waldenburg (two 20th century Orthodox authorities in Jewish law), have used early sources on workers' autonomy to justify unions and strikes. According to Feinstein, "in the case in which workers decide that they will not work until they receive a raise in salary or a similar thing. .. the majority may force the minority to observe it." (Iggrot Moshe, Hoshen Mishpat 59).

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.