Talmudic pages

Bava Metzia 110

Getting paid by morning.

Leviticus 19:13 asserts the importance of paying your employees on time: “The wages of a hired laborer shall not remain with you all night until morning.” Why? As Leviticus 19 repeatedly insists, because “I am the Lord your God.” Implied is the idea that God’s world is one where relationships with power differentials should be characterized by justice. 

Today’s daf quotes a beraita that explores what this law actually means in terms of timing.

The sages taught: From where is it derived concerning a day laborer that they collect all night? The verse states: “The wages of a hired laborer shall not remain with you all night until the morning.” (Leviticus 19:13)

We might have read the biblical verse to mean that the employer must pay at the end of the day, but the beraita says employees have the entire night to collect payment. An employer is not in violation of biblical law unless they haven’t paid by the next morning. But of course, not everyone works the day shift: 

And from where is it derived concerning a night laborer that they collect all day? As it is stated: “On the same day you shall give him his wages.” (Deuteronomy 24:15)

When the book of Deuteronomy lays out its employment laws, largely repeating what is written in Leviticus, it does not refer to the night but “the same day” — which the sages take to mean that one who works the night shift has all day to get paid. This apparently extends the window of payment the Torah has in mind, but only by half a day.

Notice that the biblical text addresses the employer, the one who is obligated to pay on time. The assumed audience for these laws is people with at least enough money to hire other people to do some of the work that needs doing. But the beraita addresses the workers themselves, those who have the right to collect the payment in a timely fashion. The beraita’s audience is the hired, not the hirers, who are likely to be lower on the socio-economic scale than their employers. 

I don’t want to overread this distinction. The Talmud is going to continue its discussion by focusing in on the obligations (and liabilities) of employers: 

Why does the verse state: “Until the morning”? It teaches that he transgresses (the prohibition of withholding payment) only until the first morning alone. From that point forward, what is it? Rav said: He violates the prohibition of “Do not delay.” Rav Yosef said: What is the verse? “Do not say to your neighbor: Go and come again, and tomorrow I will give, when you have it with you.” (Proverbs 3:28)

As this rabbinic discussion reminds us, the biblical commands are aimed at the employers, and so it is the employers who are punished for violating these laws. The employee may be left without money, but the employer’s transgressions come with their own, divinely mandated costs. 

But let’s go back to the beraita for a moment. The beraita paints a picture of an expansive rabbinic community, one which crosses class and economic lines. This community is one in which not only the (relatively wealthy) can sit and study the Oral Torah to ensure that they are living as God intends. In speaking to those who collect wages, not those who pay them, the beraita recognizes the dignity and intellectual abilities of employees and their own investment in living righteously according to God’s vision of the world laid out in the Torah. And that’s a world with real potential to be characterized by justice.

Read all of Bava Metzia 110 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 17, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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