The Challenge of Wealth
By Dr. Meir Tamari
RESPONSA BALAK; WEEK OF 6TH-12TH TAMMUZ, 5763.
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-
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 (www.besr.org) in Jerusalem.