Painting by Yoram Raanan.
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Parashat Ki Tetze is full of social commandments meant to help the people of Israel build a proper society after it enters the land.
With these mitzvot, the Torah guides the nation toward becoming a fair society with compassion for the poor and underprivileged.
In today’s business world, there is a payment method referred to as “current plus 30,” meaning that if someone hires someone for a one-time job, the employer often pays the worker’s wages only 30 days after the end of the month in which he worked. There are places where the payment method is even “current plus 60” or “current plus 90.”
Is this arrangement acceptable in the eyes of the Torah? In our portion, it states: “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.... You shall give him his wage on his day and not let the sun set over it, for he is poor, and he risks his life for it, so that he should not cry out to the Lord against you, so that there should be sin upon you” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).
First, the Torah commands an employer to pay a daily worker his wages at the end of his workday, no later than sunset. Amazingly, the Torah compares paying him late to exploitation, since the hired worker “risks his life” for his wages, and when he does not receive them on time, he is like one who has been denied his money.
Is this mitzva unique to the Jewish poor? The Torah states: “of your brothers or of your strangers who are in your land” (ibid. 24:14). This mitzva refers to everyone, even resident foreigners. Non-Jews who had become citizens of the land had the right to fair and considerate work conditions.
This mitzva is mentioned also in the Book of Leviticus: “You shall not oppress your fellow. You shall not rob. The hired worker’s wage shall not remain with you overnight until morning” (Lev. 19:13).
Here, too, we are commanded not to withhold wages of a hired worker who completed his work after sunset, and the employer must pay the wages by morning. In this verse, the mitzva is not connected to the poor and is not rationalized with considerations of compassion, such as “risk of life.” Here the mitzva is written as an elementary obligation of basic fairness to every person. Even if the hired worker is rich, withholding his wages is somewhat similar to stealing and oppression.
If this is the case, why does the Torah repeat it in our portion regarding “the poor and destitute hired worker”? Wouldn’t it be obvious from Leviticus that the mitzva is relevant to any worker? Our sages explain that the main obligation to pay wages on the day the work is done is said of the rich as of the poor. But here the Torah emphasizes that whoever does not pay the poor worker’s wages on time, his sin is much greater. In addition to the basic sin, this case involves the added hardship of the poor risking his life for his wages, as well as the pleading of his wife and children, who expect him to bring bread and milk home at the end of his workday.
The Torah adds emphasis regarding the poor and destitute. If you do not pay his wages on time, he will “cry out to the Lord against you,” meaning he will complain about you to God, and then there would be “sin upon you.”
Here, too, the sages are exact and ask: And if he does not complain about you, it would not be a sin? And they explain: Either way it would be a sin, but God is quicker to punish the sinner when the poor hired worker calls to Him and complains about his cruel employer.
Our historic right to the Land of Israel is solid and strong, its roots run deep. But we must never forget that it is contingent on building a proper and fair society, one that has compassion for its citizens and strangers, a society that would never allow poor and destitute people to cry out to God to complain about their bitter fate, because God hears their pain and punishes those who caused it. The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.
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