Bava Metzia 111

She works hard for the money.

On February 23, 1983, Donna Summer attended a Grammy Awards after-party at a swank restaurant. Upon entering the restroom, Summer spied the bathroom attendant slumped in a chair, fast asleep. Interviewed later, Summer said, “I looked at her and my heart just filled up with compassion for this lady, and I thought to myself, ‘God, she works hard for the money, cooped up in this stinky little room all night.’” Inspired, she went home and wrote the iconic lead single She Works Hard for the Money. The washroom attendant, Onetta Johnson, posed with Summer on the back cover of the eponymous album.

The Torah, too, has compassion for laborers working hard for minimal pay, ruling in Deuteronomy 24:14-15: “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow Israelite or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay out the wages due on the same day, before the sun sets, for the worker is needy and urgently depends on it; else a cry to Adonai will be issued against you and you will incur guilt.”

The sentiment is echoed in Leviticus 19:13: “The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.”

Note that Deuteronomy prescribes that wages be given “the same day, before the sun sets,” while Leviticus says the wages should “not remain until morning.” Notice too that Deuteronomy makes clear this law applies to all low-wage workers, whether Israelite or non-Israelite, but Leviticus does not specify anything about the worker. A mishnah on today’s daf draws the following conclusion from this difference in phrasing: 

One who hires a gentile who resides in the land of Israel and observes the seven Noahide commandments is subject to the prohibition of: “On the same day you shall give him his wages,” but is not subject to the negative mitzvah of: “The wages of a hired laborer shall not remain with you all night until the morning.”

According to this mishnah, only those gentiles that accept upon themselves the seven Noahide laws the Torah believes are incumbent on all non-Jews (do not murder, do not steal, etc.) are subject to the timeline for payment given in Deuteronomy (same day), but not the law stated in Leviticus (before the following morning). The difference seems to be that gentile workers who do not accept the Noahide laws can be paid during the course of the night.

There’s another difference between the laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus: The former applies specifically to poor laborers, and the latter to all laborers. The mishnah doesn’t directly address this discrepancy, but the Gemara asks about it: 

And with regard to the first tanna (that is, the author of our mishnah), who does not address this verse of: “For he is poor,” what does he do with it? That verse is necessary to give precedence to a poor person over a wealthy person (if the employer does not have enough money to pay all his workers).

If a poor person and a wealthy person are both due their wages, the Gemara explains, the author of our mishnah would rule that the poor person takes precedence, both because the verse in Deuteronomy spells it out and because, presumably, a wealthy person can wait a little longer. 

Interestingly, the Gemara adds that if a poor worker and a destitute one are both due their wages, the poor person (who has comparatively more than a destitute person who has nothing) is actually paid first, since they would likely be too embarrassed to ask the employer for their pay and the destitute person is so down and out that they are not ashamed to do so.

Nowhere, however, is there any hint that a Jew should be paid before a non-Jew. Recognizing that a day laborer works hard for their money and should be paid on the day they earn it no matter how they worship is the righteous culmination of this discussion, and a just application of this mitzvah in the centuries that follow. 

Read all of Bava Metzia 111 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 18, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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