Work Ethic and Employer Morals
-Rabbi Dr. Ronen Lubitz-
Ya’acov was an “innocent man” (ish tam) in his day. If he were alive today, he may have been considered something of a sucker. Through his personality and actions, Ya’acov exemplified the optimal level of work ethic demanded of an employee. From Ya’acov, Maimonides learns that an employee “must work with his full effort, as Ya’acov the righteous said: “with all my might I served your father.”
Ya’acov’s tireless efforts in the service of Lavan were not forced upon him and were not a result of the unique circumstance of being a guest in his father in law’s house, but rather were rooted in his fundamental and ideological understanding of proper work ethics. This is evident from Ya’acov’s rebuke of the shepherds he encounters at the well upon his arrival in Haran: “The day is yet long; it is not the time to take in the livestock. Water the sheep and go pasture.” Rashi on the spot writes: “Since he saw them lying down, he thought that they wished to gather the livestock to return home and that they would no longer graze. So he said to them, ‘The day is yet long,’ i.e., if you have been hired for the day, you have not completed the day’s work, and if the animals are yours, it is nevertheless not the time to take in the livestock etc.” Ya’acov’s sense of justice with respect to an employee’s obligations toward his employer was so powerful that he could not hold himself back from rebuking the shepherds, even as he was a just-arrived stranger, hunted and alone, who normally should have been wary of them and more interested in finding favor in their eyes.
Even in his last years in Haran, Ya’acov continues to display an extraordinary work ethic. The Midrash, regarding the words “and he worked with him yet another seven years,” points out Ya’acov’s unique diligence and consistency in his work with the following insight: "It is the way of the world that laborers work faithfully for their employers for two or three hours, but then become lazy in their toil. However, in this case, just as the first years were whole, so too were the last. Just as the first years were completed faithfully, so too were the last.” According to the Midrash, it is natural that over the course of time employees become less dedicated and their work product suffers accordingly. However, in Ya’acov’s case this did not happen, as his motivation stemmed from his personal values of justice and integrity.
Ya’acov, however, was forced to contend with an employer who did not value his work and constantly looked for ways to take advantage of him. Ya’acov can claim the title of the “first employee to be exploited by his employer,” as is evident from his own words to his wives: “And you know that with all my might I served your father. But your father mocked me and changed my wages ten times ten times …”
In order that employee exploitation and mistreatment does not become rampant in Israel, the Torah sets forth clear labor protection laws. For example, the Torah states that: “You shall not withhold the wages of a poor or destitute hired worker, of your brothers or of your strangers who are in your land within your cities. You shall give him his wage on his day and not let the sun set over it …” The Torah teaches that delaying wages is not only a pecuniary offense, but also a capital one: “…for he is poor, and he risks his life for it.” This is why the Torah warns the employer who delays wages, “So that there should be sin upon you.”
It appears that in antiquity day laborers often belonged to the poorer classes, as opposed to those who were financially stable and independent and who owned land, cattle or merchandise. Laborers were often grouped with the poor, the foreigners, the widows and the orphans, who together made up the lower class in society.
From the words of the prophets we can discern that there was a tendency among the more wealthy elements of society to exploit their employees. For example, the prophet Malachi (3:5) warned, “And I will approach you for judgment, and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely; and also against those who withhold the wages of the day laborers, of the widow and fatherless, and those who pervert [the rights of] the stranger …”
The Halacha presents us with a detailed and forward thinking set of laws whose purpose is to protect laborers in the work place. Thus, for example, Halacha permits a laborer who committed himself to a full day’s work to renege on his commitment and cease working in the middle of the day. If a laborer commits himself to working for a certain amount of time, he may change his mind even in before the end of the term and the employer must pay for the time invested. The Torah’s approach to labor law and employee rights is not based solely on principles of justice and compassion, but also on the statement from Leviticus 25:54: “For the children of Israel are servants to me.” ‘They are my servants, and not servants to servants.’ Therefore, Halacha goes to great lengths to ensure that employment does not turn to slavery.
In our day, the fear of worker enslavement seems distant and irrelevant, and employee rights are anchored in a complex network of civil laws. However, even today we are witness to the phenomenon of exploitation of the weak elements in society, as there are people who are forced to work on weekends and holidays, whose wages are below the legally mandated minimum, who are terminated in order to prevent tenure, who are forced to work in unsuitable conditions, etc.
Ya’acov’s quality is not preva lent in society. Ya’acov could work with all his strength despite being exploited, as he merited Hashem answering his prayer in full. “If God will be with me, and he will guard me on this way upon which I am going, and he will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear. And if I return in peace to my father's house, then Hashem will be my God.”
Today, all of society must be responsible for maintaining employee rights, for preventing their exploitation, for ensuring suitable working conditions and for guaranteeing appropriate and timely wages. If we treat workers as a Chosen People should, we will merit the continuation of Malachi’s words: “I make a treasure. And I will have compassion on them as a man has compassion on his son who serves him.”
Rabbi Dr. Ronen Lubitz, a “Tzohar” rabbi, serves as the Rabbi of Nir Etzion.