Jewish Perspectives on Labor Day

There is some irony in the observance of “Labor Day” in our country: It is a holiday acknowledging the achievements of labor activists, and is intended to provide all workers in the United States with a day off, and yet it is often observed by white-collar workers only.

At my alma mater, Duke University, we received no time off. If anything, this was not an injustice to students, but rather to the professors and adjuncts who had to come into work. Even in North Carolina, which ranks 48th in public school teacher pay, non-tenure track professors were paid less annually than public school teachers.

This year my  new employer, the ISJL,  will provide me with a well-earned rest on Labor Day. I’m looking forward to a day of relaxation after the whirlwind of conference planning, session-leading, and extensive summer travel for work. But every federal holiday comes with a story, and even as I enjoy my day off I want to be cognizant of this holiday’s truths. Just as I cannot celebrate Columbus Day — or Indigenous People’s Day, as I prefer to call it — without recognizing the massive cost to indigenous lives and land, we must acknowledge the work that went into establishing Labor Day, and the large communities of workers who still do not benefit from it.

As Jews, we have a particular responsibility to uphold the rights of all workers. From Leviticus 13:19, we learn that “Thou shalt not oppress thy neighbor, nor rob him: the wages of a hired servant shall not abide with thee all night until the morning.” In Deuteronomy 5:14, we learn that just as the Israelites were commanded to rest on the Sabbath, they were also told to provide a chance for their servants to rest. The Mishnah teaches us:

One who hires workers and tells them to start early or stay late – in a place where the custom is not to start early or stay late, the employer may not coerce them. In a place where the custom is to feed the workers – the employer must feed them, to provide sweets – the employer must provide sweets. Everything goes according to the custom of the land. (Bava Metzia 7:1)

Not only is this precedent of worker’s rights in our scriptures, but also it is visible in the history of Jews in the United States. Upon their arrival in the United States, many Jews became a part of the garment industry. This industry had long hours and unsafe conditions; many Jews, such as Clara Lemlich, therefore became leaders in leading picket lines and unions. Thanks to their tireless work, many Americans now have protections such as child labor laws, the 8-hour work day, and paid sick leave.

READ: Jewish Workers and Trade Unions

However, it is always critical to remember that these protections are not universal. Our tradition teaches us that we must care for the oppressed, and put that care into action. Just like our ancestors, we must work towards a world in which all individuals are given appropriate protections and compensation for their work.

For a more detailed account of Jews in the labor movement, click here. Our colleagues at the Jewish Women’s Archive also has an article that traces the strong presence of Jewish women in the labor movement.

READ: The International Ladies Garment Workers Union Strike of 1909

If you’re interested in sharing resources about the American labor movement and Jews, Jewish Women’s Archive has a set of eight lessons that bring together Jewish teachings with the history of worker’s activism. I encourage you, while enjoying your day off on Monday (if you’re lucky enough to have one!) to also spend some time engaging with the history of the holiday, and the ongoing march toward better working conditions for all workers.

Discover More

Laban’s Excuse: Labor Ethics and Community Standards

Laban and Jacob's business relationship teaches us about the importance of ensuring ethical working conditions.

Shabbat as Social Reform

Rabbis and Jews argued for a five-day work week in order to be able to observe Shabbat.

The ILGWU Strike of 1909

The 1909 ILGWU strike established a precedent for serious collective action in other branches of the garment economy.