Sunday, September 3, 2023

Labor Day and the Sanctity of Physical Labor



Labor Day and the Sanctity of Physical Labor

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 cafĂ© 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 and ideals.


From Jewish Law, Menahem Elon, Israel Supreme Court Justice, Rabbi, and professor on Jewish Law, Hebrew U, Harvard Law, NYU Law.


“LABOR LAW. In Scripture. Two fundamental principles relating

to the laws of the hired servant are enjoined in the Pentateuch:

Firstly, the master's duty to pay the wages of his servant on time.

"The 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);


and 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

you 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. 23:25, 26).


So 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.


Hired 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 Sekhirut, 9:4;

cf. 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 window:


The Jewish origin of the right to strike:

 A service contract is not susceptible to specific performance, i.e., the party in breach cannot be compelled to carry out his undertaking.

…The servant, on the other hand, cannot be compelled to work

against his will, since the law is that a worker may withdraw

from the employment even in the middle of the day (BM 10a;

see also below); even if his withdrawal should involve irretrievable

loss to his master (see below); he will not be compelled to

work, but the loss may be recovered out of his property (Hazon

Ish, BK no. 23:6).


This 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 labor:


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 seventh day 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. 

They actually 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 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 onewho 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.



My kibbutz 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.





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