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The Challenge of Wealth - Class 9

Parshas Vayeitzei

By Dr. Meir Tamari

Prominent in this sedrah is the 20 year employment of Yaakov by Lavan; seven years for each of his daughters and six for the flocks and herds.

Strictly speaking labour is an economic resource, whose price [wages] and use [employment], are fixed by the same factors as govern those of other resources. In reality the fact that labour is a resource of human beings makes the admixture of psychology, human welfare, and self-interest so powerful, that employee-employer relationships which commence as matters of supply, demand and price, become a compound of morality and economics. The period needed for factors of production to adjust to change, may be too long or too severe in human terms for society to allow market forces to operate on their own. Redundancy and unemployment are not just problems that may be solved by safety networks; they also affect the individuals estimates of their value to their families and society. People do not only work for the economic benefits involved, so that the supply of labour is not determined solely by wages. Rather, work also represents intellectual, emotional and artistic aspirations, while the terms of employment influence the political, social and educational structure of society. The issues arising out of these and similar factors, will be addressed according to the ethical values and moral concepts of a particular society, in our case the Jewish society.

Basically, the halakhot in the area of employment are simply those of hiring, so that in all the Codes these halakhot appear in the section of hiring, together with those of draught animals [similar in function to present day equipment], artisans and real estate. The one party hires the other to do a certain task in return for payment determined by market forces. Custom and common practice, provide both sides with protection, in those areas or cases where their contracts do not apply. Throughout, there is no requirement of political or social loyalty nor any special status or personal relationship flowing specifically from their contractual undertaking.

Although, this discussion will concentrate on issues arising out of downsizing or job security, it seems necessary to present a brief review of halakhot regarding the rights and obligation of employees and employers as these are presented in Sechirut Poalim in the Tur/Shulchan Arukh and the Rambam. The employer is required to pay the wages on the agreed date. Any delays are halakhically a form of robbery ( Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Gezeilah, chapter 1, halkhah 4). Dangerous or life threatening work may not be given to employees even if they agree or are offered higher wages in lieu of the danger. This does preclude normal risks involved in any action. Maimonides legislates that an employee is required to work for his employer with all his strength, ability and devotion, basing himself on Yaakov's description of his efforts for Lavan (Bereishit, 31: 38-40). One may not be devout at the expense of the employer so there exist shortened forms of grace and a relaxation of some laws regarding the Shemoneh Esrei during working hours (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Berachot, chapter 2, halakhah 2 ). Biblically, a worker employed dealing with food may eat from the produce but may not take any home, nor be a glutton, nor bring his family to join him Mishneh Totah, Hilkhot Sechirut, chapter 12, halakhah 3 ). Being a shomer Sachar, a paid bailee, the employee is liable for any damage due to his negligence or misuse of the employers facilities or material.. It would seem that one may not use telephones, e-mails or other facilities and materials of the employer for private needs. This would be a form of theft, involving the actual cost and the non performance of the task allotted. Although often seen as marginal and trivial, such acts are in reality, the beginning of an unravelling of a moral personality and where they become widespread and accepted practice, they are the seeds of corruption, as we saw in the Generation of the Flood- Chamas, the pilfering of something that is less than a prutah.

Retrenchment, downsizing and job security are major present day issues in labour relations. However, till very recently, at least in the high tech industries, it was employee loyalty and the war for talent that was at the heart of these relations. In essence, the two are sides of the same coin.

In both cases, employer and employee are free agents and are allowed to utilize this freedom. Employers are halakhically allowed, within the constraints of their contracts, to dismiss their workers in the interest of efficiency, to increase profits or even if they simply wish to stop their own economic activity. For example, a 19th century responsum pertinent to the modern war for talent, permitted a competitor to take workers from an existing plant thus saving the costs of training. The author, Avraham of Sochowchow explains his ruling by saying, "When the veteran entrepreneur first engaged them, he did not promise to employ them forever, nor did they undertake to work for him forever" ( Avnei Nezer,Choshen Mishpat, sec. 40). The mere act of offering employment cannot be construed as an undertaking to provide lifelong employment unless this is specified in the contracts.

In the same way, employees have to be free to leave and seek better conditions elsewhere otherwise they are condemned to a form of indenture or slavery. During the Middle Ages in Europe, people traded freedom for political and physical security; life-long employment is a similar trade-off between freedom and economic security. In its insistence on the freedom of Jews from the rule of anybody else, other than HaShem, the halakhah gave workers the right to leave their jobs even in the middle of the period agreed upon ( Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat, section 333,subsec.3). Payment has to be made for any damages suffered by the employer, but the right still exists. This need for freedom from others has been cited in the ruling that a Rabbi or communal worker may not sign a contract for more than three years, leaving himself the freedom to leave this position (Teshuvot HaChatam Sofer,Choshen Mishpat, section 172).

There is an important halakhic distinction between an employee and a slave that may illustrate the problem of job security versus freedom. A slave may not be required to do humiliating or arduous labour as compensation for his loss of freedom, while the former may be, since he is a free agent and can refuse the job offered.

Important as this view of the labour agreement as an act of two free parties is, we are still left with a moral problem of the poverty or loss of respect of the dismissed employee. Even if there is no legal responsibility surely somebody has to take responsibility for the new situation of these workers. It must be stressed that such responsibility will have to flow from considerations of tzedakah only, rather than a legal right. As such these considerations are always limited both in time and in scope, otherwise they become economically and morally counter productive. Unlimited assistance creates permanent dependence that erodes the morality of the recipient. If it becomes beyond the ability of the society to fund it, there ensues a taxpayers revolt and so may become materially impossible,..

The employer is required to pay some form of severance pay, even when this is not part of the contract or required by law. This is based on the biblical commandment that the Eved Ivri at the end of his indentured service must be given gifts (Devarim, 15:14). This severance payment is regarded by the codifiers as an act of chesed, rather than a legal right.. Maimonides placed this obligation in his chapter on tzedalkah and this would apply also to the wage earner. "He who has employed a fellow Jew for a long period of hire or even for a short term, will on the termination of the hire, grant him some of the wealth that the Lord has blessed him with."(Sefer HaChinuch, mitzvah 482).

Beyond the obligation of the employer, there is always the obligation of society to care for the weak and the poor that will now include the unemployed. All such obligations are to be funded from tax money when ever private philanthropy is insufficient. The study of the laws of charity will show that such charity goes beyond the mere provision of food and shelter. Since the provision of a job, assistance in starting a new business and even advice are considered the highest forms of charity, these will apply here as well. Society would seem to be obligated to a policy of job creation in whatever forms it finds most effective, the provision of credit and capital for self employment and social services to cater for the mental and psychological results of redundancy. The now unemployed would have the halakhic status of one who had been wealthy but who had become poor. Such people need to be given assistance to enable them to live at their former standard of living; in the language of the Codes, "even a horse to ride upon and one to precede him, as a sign of respect". The Master of Phshyscha, Simcha Bunem understood the necessity of the horse as the person may become tired, yet he queried the need for the outrider. "This is simply an idiosyncrasy", he remarked, "Yet the newly poor require also such vanities."

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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