Laban's Excuse: Labor Ethics and Community Standards
Laban and Jacob's business relationship teaches us about the importance of ensuring ethical working conditions.
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This week's Torah reading includes the story of Jacob and Laban, the first documented report of an employer-employee relationship. Laban's conduct is remembered as the classic example of chicanery in such dealings. One midrash tells us that for the first month, Jacob received only a half-wage. When Laban then tells him, "Name your wage" (Genesis 29:15), the cheating and underpayment worsens. Jacob sets out to earn his dowry, and is tricked into serving an extra seven years.
Worker's Rights in the Bible
After fourteen years, and earning no property of his own, Jacob must negotiate an agreement to earn a portion of the flock. The medieval commentator Rashi tells us that Laban cheated by removing healthy animals from the flock with the intent of leaving only the sickly and old animals. Other commentators report that Laban constantly toyed with Jacob in their negotiations, changing his mind ten times before finalizing any agreements.
As with much of Genesis, this is a foundational narrative for Jewish perspectives and values, with Jacob seen as an ideal worker and Laban's behavior as an example to be avoided. The law code the Shulchan Aruch cites this story in laying out the obligations of employers to act fairly (Choshen Mishpat 337:20).
What is Laban's response when he stands accused of deception? "We shall give you the other [daughter] also for the service you shall serve with me yet another seven years" (verse 27). Nechama Leibowitz z"l (may her memory be a blessing), in New Studies in Genesis, notes that the Rambam (Maimonides) offers the following interpretation of this plural noun, to help us understand why Laban did not honor his original dowry agreement: Laban spoke with guile. He told Jacob that things were not done this way in our place, implying that the community would not let him act like that since it violated their conventions.
Leibowitz goes on to say that we should draw the lesson from here that "one of the characteristic signs of a wicked man standing in the way of reformation is the flight from personal responsibility…he regards himself as forced into it because the community or some vague body to which he belongs compelled him to act thus." She proceeds to draw out the implications for those who would make a distinction between taking personal responsibility and citing low community morals in defense of personal choices.