True confessions- I was once a socialist.
I lived in Israel in the 1980’s and worked as director of the Central Academy for Jewish Studies ( Hamidrashah Hamercazit L’limudei Yahdadut) under the Histadrut ( Israel’s labor union) at Bet Berl College. It was a very political position, as it was intended to bolster the image of the Labor movement to its significant religious population. The Labor movement had an image problem, as it had been seen as “ cold” or” ambivalent “ to religion. They had the best candidate in me, because I was not overly Orthodox, I had no prior allegiance with any wing within the Labor movement, and, as an American, I was pegged as neither Ashkenazi nor Sefardi, so I was safely neutral. That I was ordained as a Conservative rabbi was left unspoken. I stood at speakers podiums at Histadrut events with the heads of Israeli government and with the Chief Rabbis. On Pesach , I organized a strictly kosher for Passover seder, so that the head of the Histadrut could be quoted in the papers as saying that he had spent Pesach with the “ Reds”, Ha-Adumim” at Bet Berl.
As proof of my “redness”, I once marched in a May Day Parade under the red flag of Labor. And that march signaled the end of all redness in Israel, the end of socialism. It was the last march for May Day that the Histadrut organized in 1990, at which point also, the Labor Party distanced itself from socialism ( It was by then no longer a party composed of laborers, most of whom had shifted allegiance to the right-wing and free-market oriented Likud).
It was also the year that the Histadrut, holder of Israel’s largest industrial conglomerate, COOR, sold off its industries, because the Secretary General realized that making a profit and defending worker’s rights just wouldn’t work. This was after laborers struck against their own company, Sultam, and the workers held their own company manger as hostage. It would amount to robbing themselves in order to pay themselves. The industry couldn’t make a profit and the worker couldn’t get the conditions they needed.
It was also the year that the Secretary General told the workers that they could not be protected in each and every situation. It was also when I was asked to create curriculum about the religious duty of everyone to work hard and effectively.
Even Kibbutz socialism is not what it was. I was chatting with a resident of Kibbutz Afakim, one of Israel’s largest, and in the past, most successful kibbutzim. Way back in the heyday of kibbutzim, everyone there had a bicycle! Today, ownership has been privatized, profit taking is allowed, and everyone is more prosperous than ever. The grandson of one of the founders of Kibbutz ideology, Tabenkin, discovered that breakfast took too long and cost too much. He privatized breakfast. Everyone took their breakfast allowance, ate reasonably, pocketed the cash, and got to work, which was now profitable.
With all that said, all of this turn to the market and to privatization, both in Israel, and Europe, and especially so in the US, is possible because many of the dreams that were just pipe dreams in the days of Samuel Gompers and in the days of the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire have become part of accepted law and practice in the major advanced economies of the world. That explains why the attraction of unions to laborers has shrunk so drastically, especially in industries that rely on highly educated laborers.
It helps for us, on Labor Day, to recall what Judaism, from the Bible, on has contributed to the value of labor and to the dignity of the laborer. It is especially clear as we are in the Book of Deuteronomy, where the Ten Commandments are restated, so that Sabbath is associated with liberation from bondage and the rights of the laborer, including the gentile, to rest, get an extra emphasis.
It is no wonder that the great Roman thinkers were shocked by this idea, that one should spend one-seventh of one’s life in idleness. But is also telling that the Romans themselves caught on to the idea of resting one day a week from their neighboring Jews till today it has become a nearly universal minimum right of labor.
So, let’s look at some sources:
There is the Hebrew phrase: Derekh Eretz. In Yiddish, “Hob derekh eretz” means to be respectful. Literally, it is “The Way of the World.” Figuratively, as used in rabbinic texts,, it is to be meaningfully engaged in the world especially through physical labor. This is very significant, because already, 2000 years ago, Jewish society was transitioning from a farm and labor society to a mercantile and intellectual elite society. In the Biblical society, the landed gentry had to be reminded of their obligations to the lower classes. Now, those who worked with their minds had to be reminded of their obligations to those who worked with their hands.
So, “ Derekh Eretz”, according to the Midrash, is God’s great blessing to Adam when he is expelled from the Garden of Eden. He complains, “ Shall I eat weeds of the field like and animal!”. To which God answers,”Bzeyat apechah”- by the sweat of your brow, you shall support yourself. The Rabbis explain that by labor Adam will transform the weeds of the field into delicious challah and pastry. It is the human capacity to work that enhances God’s creation.
So what can we say for the scholar who wishes to remain ensconced in the ivory tower of the Yeshivah?
“Great is Talmud Torah, Study of Torah, that is combined with Derekh Eretz, as the two together will lead to the abandonment of sin. All Talmud Torah that is not combined with work will, in the end, be nullified and will lead to sin.” Being a great ( or not so great) scholar was not an excuse from holding a job and being responsible for a family. What goes on today in Charedi populations in Israel, that support themselves by political extortion, female labor, and avoidance of military service is not backed by this statement.( Pirkei Avot 2:2)
We are also taught, in Pirkei Avoth, to love labor and hate mastery over others ( Rabbanut). To this the Rabbis added,
“Love work” How? This teaches that a person should love work, and not hate work. Just as the
Torah was given through the covenant, so too, work was given through the covenant, as it says
“For six days you shall labor and do all of your work, and the seventh day is a Sabbath to your God.”( Avot Nathan on 1:10) In other words, to work in productive labor six days is as much as divine command as to rest on Shabbat.
What about the great leaders themselves?
Rabbi Yehuda used to go into the Beit Midrash carrying a pitcher on his shoulders. He
would say, 'Great is work, as it gives honor to the one who does it.' Rabbi Shimon would
carry a basket on his shoulders, and would say, 'Great is work, as it gives honor to the one
who does it. '" (b. Nedarim 49b)
Labor is greater than piety.
Rabbi Hiyya ben Ammi said in the name of Ulla: Greater is the one who benefits from
the work of his hands than one who fears heaven. In regard to the one who fears heaven,
it is written “Happy is the man who fears God (Psalms 112).” But in regard to the one
who benefits from his own work, it is written “When you eat from the work of your
hands, you will be happy, and it will be well with you. (Psalms 128)” “You will be
happy” refers to this world; “It will be well with you” refers to the world to come. In
regard to the one who fears heaven, the text does not say “it will be well with you.” (b.
Brakhot 8a) In other words, your piety may make you feel good in this life, but it won’t open the door to heaven. Only productive labor can do that.
Because labor is valued, the laborer, clearly, is to be praised and treated well. Again, our book of Deuteronomy talks about the poor man who has fallen on such hard times that he sells himself .
“When your brother sells himself to you” (Deuteronomy 15:12) To this, Rabbi Ben-Tzion Meir Chai Uziel, the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1939 commented, “Employers are obligated to behave with love, honor, goodwill and generosity toward their workers. Workers, for their part, should act faithfully and should give themselves fully to the work that they were hired to do.”
So how far do we go in consideration for the laborer?
Some porters working for Raba bar bar Hanan broke a jug of wine. He seized their
Clothes in payment for damages. They came before Rav, and Rav said to Raba bar bar Hanan, “give them their clothing.” Raba bar bar bar Hanan said to him, “Is this the law?” Rav said, “yes, because of the principle ‘you should walk in the ways of the good (Proverbs 2:20).” He gave
them back their clothes. They said to him, “we are poor, and we troubled ourselves to
work all day and we are needy--do we receive nothing? Immediately, Rav said to Raba
bar bar Hanan, “Go, give them their wages.” He said to Rav, “Is this the law.” Rav said,
“yes-- ‘you should keep the ways of the righteous (ibid)’”
We have to respect the right of the worker to quit his job or to go on strike, even in the middle of the day because “the children of Israel are [God's] servants and not servants to servants." (b. Bava Kamma 117b)
What about timely payment?
Do not oppress the hired laborer who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your people
or one of the sojourners in your land within your gates. Give him his wages in the
daytime, and do not let the sun set on them, for he is poor, and his life depends on them,
lest he cry out to God about you, for this will be counted as a sin for you." (Deuteronomy
The Talmudic commentary to this:
“His life depends on them” indicates that anyone who denies a hired laborer his
wages, it is as though he takes his life from him." (b. Bava Metzia 112a)
The respect and concern for the laborer from the employer is a two way street.
Traditional sources compel employees to work diligently, to be precise in their work, and
avoid wasting the employer's time. Workers may even recite abbreviated prayers and excuse
themselves from certain religious obligations in order not to detract from their work. If a worker is picking dates at the top of a palm tree, and it is time to pray, he does not climb down, but stays on top, prays where he is, quickly, so as not to rob his employer of his time! ( Brakhot
46a) There is no piety possible at someone else’s cost!
According to Maimonides:
Just as the employer (literally: householder) is cautioned not to steal or delay the salary
of the poor [worker], so too must the poor person be careful not to steal the work of the
owner by wasting a little time here and there until the entire day is filled with fraud.
Rather, he should be careful about time.. . .. Similarly, the worker is
obligated to work with all of his strength, for behold, Jacob the righteous said [to Rachel
and Leah] " I have served your father with all my might." (Mishneh Torah Hilkhot
Finally, even as the Sages discussed the question of what should be a minimum wage , so that the laborer could earn enough to feed his family , the key concern was how to raise the laborer to a higher level, so that then wage would go up with it. Ho could one raise the laborer to a higher and more prosperous level and so as not to depend on support from others, whether it be artificial price supports or government benefits, but from personal success.
We all know the 8 levels of Zedakah, charity, that were formulated by Maimonides in his laws on charity. He speaks of anonymous givers and anonymous takers, of those who give gladly and those who give grudgingly. But he caps it all:
“The greatest level, above which there is no greater, is to support a fellow Jew by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others . . .”
That must be the ultimate goal of any public program to benefit the laborer, to enable the worker to move beyond the minimum wage level to a level that creates prosperity for the worker, the family, and for society to “no longer be dependent upon others.”