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The Challenge of Wealth

Parshas Balak

By Dr. Meir Tamari


Strictly speaking labor is an economic resource, the price (wages) and use (employment) of which are fixed by the same laws as govern those of other resources. In reality, however, the fact that labor is a resource consisting of human beings, with all of the consequences that flow from that, effects the practical aspects of labor relations and wage policies. Nowhere else in the whole field of economics is the admixture of psychology, human welfare, and economic self-interest more prevalent than in the field of labor and wages. Ethical and human issues assert themselves in such a way that what starts out as an exercise in costs, supply and demand, and profits becomes an inseparable compound of morality and economics. Halakhically, the employer-employee relationship is a specific instance of contractual rights and obligations binding free agents. All legal factors applying to contracts, apply here. It should be noted that there is no element to the relationship beyond the buying and selling of services. There are no political, social or personal claims on either of the parties concerned. In Judaism, symmetry in justice is reflected in its insistence that a worker has obligations, primarily to render honest value for the wages received, so that there is no justification for defrauding an employer nor is there place for the class- struggle.

However, since the employees are dependent on the wages and working conditions, they are granted special protection regarding them over and above the normal legalisms regarding contracts. A major form of the protection is that granted by custom that has all the power of law in halakha. Of greater importance is the obligation to do charity and acts of righteousness. We make a clear distinction between acts flowing from the religious obligation to do charity and those flowing from the law of contracts. This frees the employer from having the solution to the social and personal problems of the employee foisted on to him purely as a result of being the employer. However, the concept of charity prevents the employee from becoming a disposable object and the employers from evading the demands of moral behavior.

This interplay between legal obligations and charity, may be best demonstrated by considering the case where an employee suffered bodily harm in performing the task imposed on him, but through no-fault of the employer.

In the Talmudic discussion that forms the basis for the rulings regarding a worker's illness ( Bava Metzia 112a, as explained by Rashi), they concluded that in his desire to earn the wages offered, the worker knowingly took on himself the normal risks involved in that job, and therefore the employer was not liable to pay the costs of damages suffered in that work. The Rama in the authoritative gloss on the Shulchan Arukh( Choshen Mishpat, section 333, sub-section 5) argues that since the employer is liable to pay only for the time worked by a sick worker (and not for the period contracted for as a whole), it would seem obvious, therefore, that he should not be obligated to cover the medical costs involved in those cases that they were not caused by the employer.

The first case deals with a communal edict that shows the power of custom to change the above Talmudical law. It should be noted that in Europe of the Middle Ages and even until the 18th century, the Jewish communities, by and large, were autonomous political entities and as such, had the right to tax their members and to enforce Jewish law. Moreover, their enactments had the force of law according to halakha.

"One hired a worker to accompany him on his travels to outlying villages when he went to sell articles of glassware and other similar goods. The worker then became ill. The custom in the town of Izmir [Turkey] is that the employer pays for the whole period of the contract of a worker who fell ill during that period. Furthermore, he is liable for the medical expenses. In order to explain this custom we assume that the employer, by causing the worker to travel, exposed him to the dangers of becoming ill and therefore should be liable to compensate him, even though the employer was not guilty of negligence and even though these payments were not stipulated in their contract"(R.Chaim Pallache - 18th century Turkey, Teshuvot Ruach Chaim, section 333, sub-section 4).

A similar communal enactment was made in the community of Krakow in 1595.This laid down that the employer of a maidservant was obligated to pay the hospital expenses in the case of illness for a period of 14 days. If she required a longer period in hospital [attached to the Jewish community] then the expenses for a further four weeks were to be divided between the maid and the employer. All medical expenses for any longer period, devolved on the communal charity funds. In the case of a manservant who became ill, the employer was liable to all expenses for up to a period of 4 weeks and after that, the cost was to be borne by the communal funds.

It is easy and commonplace to see in these communal edicts a social or political development that has no basis in Talmudic or halakhic sources. Rather they are often seen, incorrectly, as being solely the results of alien pressures or of developments in the surrounding gentile societies. Yet we have a Talmudic source that obligated the employer to fund the medical expenses that resulted from special conditions even though legally the employer was not the cause of the illness. It is this source that the authorities saw as a basis for these enactments.

"And these were the priests in charge of the Temple service... The son of Achiya was over the sick, who suffer from diseases of the intestines" (Mishnah Shekalim, chapter 5, mishnah1). The Jerusalem Talmud explains that was because the priests worked barefooted on the marble and dressed only in a linen shift as was demanded of them. They ate the meat of the sacrifices so that they would not transgress the laws of sacrifices by leaving part of the sacrifice. Then they drank water since it was forbidden to drink wine in the Temple. Because of all this, they developed an illness of the intense. The son of Achiya gave them wine that was actually a medicine and eased the disease. In other words the conditions of their work meant that they contracted those internal diseases, so that the priests responsible for their work, gave them medicine that was paid for out of the Temple funds.

Our second case deals with a situation in which the worker was killed on the job or was taken into captivity, but through no fault of the employer. It should be remembered that for much of Jewish history such dangers have been a constant fact of life, so that they presented a real business risk.

"To my beloved Yekutiel who asked me in connection with your employee Ezra who was killed in the course of his job. We learn in the aggadah in the chapter 'chalek' in the Talmud Sanhedrin (85a) that G-d asked King David, "how long will the sin of the death of the priests of Nob lie on your head? You were responsible for Doeg losing his share in the World to Come, and through you King Saul and his three sons were killed. [The reference is to Saul's destruction of the city of Nob because the priests had sheltered David. Doeg had spoken lashon harah in that incident and Saul had committed a crime of murder (1 Samuel, chapters 21 and 22). Do you want your sons to be killed or to be bound over to the enemy?" Even though King David was not guilty of their deaths, still through him they died and so he was held accountable and punished through trials and tribulations. So you too (the employer), should accept on yourself some form of tribulation and atonement such as a fast for 40 days. If the worker had any minor children you should provide for them within your means. We have learnt in(Shabbat 149b), " that anyone through whom another was punished with suffering or with troubles, is not permitted to enter the Divine Presence"( TeshuvotMahari Weil,section 125)

Copyright 2002 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and Project Genesis, Inc.

Dr. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics ( in Jerusalem.



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