For the past two years, we’ve taken a group of our evening school students on a Jewish trip to New York. Many of the typical New York experiences – Broadway, Times Square – are part of the trip, but we’ve also been sure to take them to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of New York. For those of you unfamiliar with the Tenement Museum, it is a remarkable piece of the New York story and of many of our ancestors’ immigrant stories. The educators at the Tenement Museum are talented – our guide on our last visit is a professor at NYU, if I remember correctly. They share the stories of numerous immigrant families through various periods in New York’s history.
One of the tours we included for our students is the Sweatshop Workers tour, which includes a visit to the Levine family apartment at the turn of the 20th century. The guides typically show a photograph to the students of Orchard Street during that time period, which includes a young man, a schlepper, carrying a huge bundle of fabric from one business to another. While my ancestors did not live on the Lower East Side, they were immigrant families and they were in the garment business. My great grandfather and his brother owned a men’s clothing shop and, I would imagine, stocked their store with garments made in this neighborhood.
I am always struck, looking at the apartment’s cramped quarters and imagining Mr. Levine at one end of the shop supervising the girls making dresses, and Mrs. Levine at the other end, keeping her home and tending to her children. I wonder about the working conditions of that family and their employees and then wonder what role my own family played in the working conditions of people like the Levines and their employees. If my grandmother were alive today, she’d sing the praises of her parents and grandparents and, I’m sure, she’d insist they were good to their employees. Still, I wonder.
The Jewish community is one of few that has remained “supportive of worker and trade union rights for many years, even as it evolved from being a predominantly working-class community in the first part of the 20th century to a predominantly professional and entrepreneurial-class community today.” We have collectively remembered what it was like to work in difficult conditions, but we’ve also held on to the core beliefs of our tradition that demand that workers be treated with dignity. “Both in spirit and in practice, religious commandments relating to the hiring of workers are imbued with respect for labor rights.”
There are numerous Biblical commandments that speak to the importance of worker rights. Even the notion of Shabbat indicates the importance of worker rights. Six days a week, we’re allowed to labor, but on the seventh day, we are commanded to rest. But it’s not only we who are commanded to rest. Our animals and our workers must rest as well. The Torah includes a variety of laws that insist upon the rights of the laborer. Leviticus demands that workers be paid on the day on which they’ve labored (19:13). Jewish and non-Jewish workers alike were not to be oppressed (Deut. 24:14, 15). The Talmud expands upon these Biblical commandments and “warns that employers who withhold wages are guilty of six violations: oppressing a neighbor, stealing, oppressing the poor, delaying payment of wages, failing to page wages at the due date, and failing to pay wages before sunset” (BT Bava Metzia 111a). While some of these seem to overlap, the emphasis on these six violations demonstrates how the rabbis felt about the rights of the worker.
In addition to halachah (Jewish law) about the prompt payment of workers, there is also Jewish law about workers’ rights to terminate their own employment. There are, as well, limitations on the hours that a laborer can work. Shabbat is, of course, the first of these laws, as I mentioned before. “Two other laws relating to hours of work are mentioned in the Talmud. The first (BT Bava Metzia 83b) requires that workers be paid for hours spent walking to work (although not for hours spent walking home). This law – incorporating at least in part the principle of ‘portal to portal’ pay – was designed to prevent an employer from compelling a worker to leave home before the normal working day began. A second law (Tosefta Bava Metzia 8:2) prohibits a worker from working at night after working a day shift.” This not only protects the worker, but also protects the employer, since a laborer would not be able to perform his duties satisfactorily if he or she is exhausted.
Jewish law insists upon workers’ rights to eat. Deuteronomy says that when a laborer enters a vineyard to work, he can eat his fill of grapes without paying (Deut. 23:25). “Workers are permitted to eat as much as they like, provided that the food comes from the field in which they are working. Waiters are also permitted to eat some of the food that they serve.” There are some restrictions placed on these provisions, but the rights of workers as outlined in Torah and Talmud exceed what many of us would consider to be the bare minimum in our society today. Why is this? The most important thing to remember is that in Jewish tradition, there is no owner but God. The landowner in whose vineyard I am gleaning grapes does not actually own his field. God does. And God says that it is the right of the poor to take what he needs. This is why Torah demands that we leave the corners of the field (peah) and the gleanings (leket) for the poor to take. In our society we might think about the fairness towards the landowner, but when we remember that it was never his to begin with, that everything he has and everything he is came from God, then we interact with our workers differently. There is no such thing in Judaism as a self-made man, because even the so-called self-made man became who he was under the guidance of God’s hand.
Jewish law also supports the right to form trade unions and engage in collective bargaining. “The Talmud refers to a separate synagogue for coppersmiths (BT Megillah 26a); to separate seating in the Temple for different types of workers; and to efforts by the workers to engage in mutual self-help… Moreover, the Talmud explicitly recognized the right of worker organizations to regulate wages and to make binding rules and regulations on members of the association, in much the same way that trade unions negotiate wage and conditions for all members of a bargaining unit today (Baba Batra 8b).” The Talmud presents a story of job actions taken by craftspeople associated with the Temple. The family that baked ceremonial bread for the Temple was dismissed after it refused to share its secret methods with others. When they could not be replaced, they family insisted that their wages be doubled. They were rehired and ultimately did not have to share their trade secrets (BT Yoma 38a). “Interestingly, the description of the dispute over the baking of the ceremonial bread is contained in the section of the Talmud dealing with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar. The fact that the Talmud, in a section relating to Yom Kippur, permitted a strike for higher wages by communal workers against no less than the Temple itself implies that strikes to improve wages and conditions are consistent with Jewish law.”
Not only has Judaism insisted upon the rights of the laborer, but Judaism has also lauded labor itself. Where Aristotle said, “Labor stupefies both mind and body and deprives man of his natural dignity… The title of citizen belongs only to those who need not work to live,” Jewish scholars of that era, in Pirke Avot, insisted, “Love labor and hate mastery and seek not acquaintance with the ruling power” (Pirke Avot 1:10). Judaism’s insistence on the proper treatment of workers and the high esteem with which labor is held might inspire us to be more attentive to the most vulnerable workers and laborers in our midst and their needs this Labor Day Weekend and all year long. Shabbat Shalom.
 Michael S. Perry, Labor Rights in the Jewish Tradition, Jewish Labor Committee, jewishlaborcommittee.org, p. 2.
 Ibid, p. 8.
 Perry, p. 10.
 Ibid, p. 11.
 Israel Weisfield, Labor Legislation in the Bible and Talmud, Yeshiva University, New York, 1974, p. 53; from Aristotle, Politics, Parts 6, 8, 10, 11.