Labor Day and the Sanctity of
Labor Day, 2023Video of presentation:
I have 2 strikes going on
simultaneously right outside my window where I live.
I am just around the corner from fox
studios so every time I go out of the driveway of our residents, I see the
pickets picketing the studio. These are the actors and writers who keep us
entertained and challenged. I know that they are facing a very critical time
because modern technology is upending their kind of work just as the
introduction of film up ended the work done by live stage actors and
playwrights in the years before there was film. As I would expect from people who are middle or upper middle
class, the strikers are very polite and quiet, just walking back and forth. I
really would expect a little more dramatic element added to the strike
especially from people who are so talented and creative.
On the other side of our window, I
face a major hotel and very often in the morning at 6:00 AM, I hear loud drums
and the blare of loudspeakers shouting and waking up everybody for at least a
mile around. These are the service workers of the hotel industry, and I can say
while it is annoying, this kind of approach fits people who work physically
very hard for their daily bread. Frankly they are the creative and talented
people in this strike.
I don't want to disparage people who
write or sit at desks for their livelihoods, like me. However, I know that
during the pandemic it was the other people, who work with their hands and
their feet very hard, who made sure that food was served to children in school
even when the teachers had the luxury of leading class from the safety of home,
and who made sure the deliveries were made so that stores could have supplies
so people could buy food and necessities. I also know that such hard working
people bore the brunt of the infections and disease during the COVID pandemic
because they tended to live in cramped houses and had to suffer the effects of
being at work and bringing whatever they picked up at work home, through no
fault of their own. We owe an awful lot
to people who worked physically to make our civilization flourish while the
rest of us sat home, had our café latte, and sat in on mind-numbing, often
unproductive zoom meetings which I either sat in or observed.
So, in honor of people who put in a
hard day of honest labor, I want to touch on a few aspects of Jewish labor laws
From Jewish Law, Menahem Elon,
Israel Supreme Court Justice, Rabbi, and professor on Jewish Law, Hebrew U,
Harvard Law, NYU Law.
LAW. In Scripture. Two fundamental principles relating
the laws of the hired servant are enjoined in the Pentateuch:
the master's duty to pay the wages of his servant on time.
wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning"; "You
must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets" (Lev. 19: 13;
Deut. 24: I S);
secondly , the servant’s right to eat from the produce of the field he is working:
"When you enter your neighbor's vineyard, you may , if
desire, eat your fill of the grapes. . When you find yourself amid your
neighbor's standing grain, you may pluck ears With your hand" (Deut.
too the liberal Pentateuchal laws concerning the Hebrew bondsman (sec Slavery)
served as an important source for the development of' labor law in later times.
Servant and Independent Contractor.
The distinction between a hired servant and an
independent contractor is one of principle: whereas the former is hired for a
specific period, the latter is hired for a specific task (Maggid Mishneh
the Roman law distinction between locatio conductio operarum and locatio
conductio operis). The time factor in the hire of a servant has the effect of
tying him to his work for fixed hours during which he cannot choose not to
work, whereas the independent contractor may work as and when it pleases him (Resp.
Maharam of Rothenburg, ed. Prague, n. 477). Hence an element of slavery
attaches to a hired servant, while a contractor "is not a slave except
unto himself"' (Rashi, BM 77a).
Apropos of the on-goings outside my
The Jewish origin of the right to
A service contract is not susceptible to
specific performance, i.e., the party in breach cannot be compelled to carry
out his undertaking.
servant, on the other hand, cannot be compelled to work
his will, since the law is that a worker may withdraw
the employment even in the middle of the day (BM 10a;
also below); even if his withdrawal should involve irretrievable
to his master (see below); he will not be compelled to
but the loss may be recovered out of his property (Hazon
BK no. 23:6).
is also the position with an independent contractor, who cannot be compelled to
carry out his undertaken task (Maharil to Piskei ha-Rosh, BM 77a). [hence
special contracts or agreements for performance]
Now, some thoughts on the dignity of
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. “ Tacitus--We
are told that the was set aside for rest because this marked the end of
their toils. In course of time the seductions of idleness made them devote
every seventh year to indolence as well. “
denounced Jews for this sin.
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.
If we made rest
a sacred principle, it is because we made work a sacred principle.
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
“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
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
carry a basket on his shoulders, and would say,
'Great is work, as it gives honor to the onewho does it. '" (b. Nedarim
Labor is greater
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.”
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.
Marxist trained room-mate in Israel left the kibbutz to further his academic
study, but he realized, as he moaned to me, that he was now “ in slavery” to
earning his daily bread.
Most of us are
past that, having earned our freedom, fully or partially, from the daily grind,
whether as employees, or servants of a worse master, ourselves, but we need to
pause and reflect on how much we depend on the labor of those struggling for
their daily bread.