Tradition today: The wages of a laborer

Jewish tradition sets precedents for paying proper wages and proper treatment of the poor and the worker.

Torah scroll 521 (photo credit: PAUL WIDEN)
Torah scroll 521
(photo credit: PAUL WIDEN)
Protests concerning social justice, the growing gap between the rich and the poor and the exploitation of workers under the system of outsourcing work to contractors in order to avoid paying proper wages and social benefits, are not new. They have ancient precedents in the Jewish tradition.
The situation is not very different from that described by the prophet Amos in the eighth century BCE. He castigated the kingdom of Israel for its lack of concern for the poor. “Ah, you who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground,” he lamented (2:7). He spoke against those who “defraud the poor, who rob the needy” (4:1), who “impose a tax on the poor and exact from him a levy of grain” (5:11). He described those who “lie on ivory beds” (6:4), feasting and drinking with no concern for justice and righteousness – the “1 percent” of that ancient time.
Amos went so far as to predict the fall of the kingdom of Israel, not because of idolatry but because of its lack of social justice, and for that he was accused of treason by Amaziah, the priest of Beth El, and threatened with exile (7:10-13). The clash between Amos and Amaziah should not be seen as a clash between prophets and priests but as a clash between a prophet and a religious leader who had sold out to the authorities and ignored what the religion of Israel had always taught.
Indeed, the prophet’s concern for social justice was well grounded in the Torah itself which, unique in its day, attempted to create a society in which the poverty gap would be virtually nonexistent, a society in which no one would be landless or fall into permanent debt that would render him penniless. That is what the Sabbatical and Jubilee years are all about, to say nothing of the weekly Sabbath which is intended to grant a day of rest to all workers equally.
The laws of the Torah are concerned with protecting the poor and with just treatment for the worker – even more than with ritual demands. “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15). The same idea was presented earlier in Leviticus 19:13 as part of the Holiness Code: “The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.”
Oppression of the poor, withholding the wages of the laborer – according to Judaism these are not merely offenses against society, they are offenses against God. This is stated in the Torah and repeated in the Writings as well as in the words of the prophets. “Do not rob the wretched because he is wretched; do not crush the poor man in the gate; for the Lord will take up their cause and despoil those who despoil them of life” (Proverbs 22:22-23).
It is a travesty of Judaism when people think that the most important issue in Jewish law is whether or not you can use a tea bag on Shabbat. The most important issue is what Amos said it was: Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate (5:15). And in saying that Amos was merely expanding upon the Torah’s demand: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut. 16:20).
Israel prides itself on being a state that is “democratic and Jewish.” Legislation is now being considered that would spell out ways in which it is Jewish. If there is anything that should characterize a Jewish state it is social justice: proper treatment of the poor and of all workers. According to the Torah and our tradition, that it truly the essence of Judaism.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).