A Day Off. . . I hope you all had a pleasant Labor Day. We spent it with our good friends, eating hot dogs and watching the US Open. A great way to spend the day. But Labor Day is also serious business. It reminds us of the centrality of work in our consciousness, and the respect that we owe to all those who do work, no matter what kind of work they do.
The Torah Protects Workers. . . It is well known that Jews have always been in the forefront of the Labor Movement and in support of workers’ rights. We have inherited this mandate from the Torah and our entire Talmudic tradition. In fact the Torah portion that we are reading this very week, Ki Teitzei, reinforces our mandate to respect and uphold the rights of workers: “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers, or of your strangers who are in your land inside your gates; at his day you shall give him his hire, nor shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it; lest he cry against you to the Lord, and it should be sin to you.” (Deuteronomy 24.14-15) The Talmud comments upon this commandment: “He who withholds a worker’s wages is as though he deprived him of his life.”(Baba Metzia 112a)
Our tradition, of course, has expanded upon this particular commandment to include all workers, whether they are poor or not. The fact that people work for a living, presumably for other people who pay them, implies that regardless of their financial status, they are most probably dependent upon their wages to support themselves and their families.
Further protections for workers are also outlined in the tradition. Workers have the right to eat that which they have harvested (the Torah, of course, speaks within an agrarian economy). This also derives from this week’s sidra: “When you enter another man’s vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you want, until you are full, but you must not put any in your vessel. When you enter another man’s field of standing grain, you may pluck ears with your hand; but you must not put a sickle to your neighbor’s grain.” (Deuteronomy 23.25-26) Workers are entitled to eat as much as they like, provided the food comes from the field in which they are working. Workers are also entitled to rest from their work. Earlier in the Book of Deuteronomy (Chapter 5), we read a restatement of the Ten Commandments, in which Jews are commanded to observe the Shabbat, and to make sure that all their workers are to observe it as well. The notion of a day of rest from labor was revolutionary. In addition, the Torah teaches, and the Talmud expands upon, early beginnings of what ultimately became trade union protections. Indentured servants were entitled to “sick and disability pay” for up to three years of the six-year period of servitude (Kiddushin 17a). Even the right to engage in collective bargaining and workers’ strikes was known and supported in Talmudic teaching. (See Yoma 38a)
Jews in the Labor Movement. . . Since the advent of modern labor unions, we remember that Jews were at the helm of the movement. From the United Hebrew Trades and the Workmen’s Circle in the late 19th century, to the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union of the early 20th century, to the ultimate unification of the American Federation of Labor and Committee for Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO) in the 1930’s, to the notoriety and progress achieved by the United Federation of Teachers in the 1960’s, and everything in between, Jewish leadership has taken the reins from the beginning for the promotion and protection of workers’ rights and improvement of working conditions.
And so, just as I hope that we all enjoyed some good sports and hot dogs yesterday (with all due respect to the vegetarians among us), I hope as well that we will remember and honor the working people of our country, which I suspect includes most of us. This is what we are taught as Jews by the entire corpus of our tradition.