Every Day Is Labor Day


This weekend (running over into Monday), Americans will be celebrating Labor Day, the annual occasion established in the late 1800s to celebrate the labor movement in the United States. (Elsewhere in the world, May 1 is the day designated for labor’s celebration.) By coincidence, this week’s Torah reading contains a number that deal, directly or otherwise, with the fate of the working man or woman. A look at some of them may reveal something interesting about the Torah. Taking the laws in order:


Most people know that slavery was an accepted institution in many parts of the ancient world. In Israel, there was no debtors’ prison: among other ways, a person could become a slave if he was convicted of theft and was unable to make restitution to the victim, or if he volunteered to became a slave because he himself was willing to trade his freedom for his upkeep. Being a slave might seem to modern readers as something other than an alternate form of employment. Surely a slave was far worse off than an ordinary hired hand: the slave’s labor was not compensated by wages, and his (or her) freedom was severely restricted. But in a subsistence economy (and especially in hard times), some people no doubt found the idea of being a slave not as horrible a fate as it is today.


Nevertheless, slaves also fled their masters sometimes—because of ill-treatment or poor working conditions. This was particularly likely to occur in the case of a runaway slave from another country; indeed, some commentators held that such was the specific case underlying this law. While in some societies, both ancient and modern, the authorities actually encouraged citizens to capture runaway slaves and return them to their owners (cf. the American “Fugitive Slave Act” of 1850), it is remarkable that the Torah takes a quite different position:


You shall not hand over to his master a slave seeking refuge from his master with you. Let him stay with you, in your very midst, in whichever place he should choose in one of your settlements, where he is comfortable; [and] do not take advantage of him. (Deut 23:16-17)


Ancient Israelites were, for the most part, workers themselves, many farming their ancestral plots or subsisting as sharecroppers. It was apparently not uncommon for people living close to the edge to find themselves falling behind financially until their crop came in. In extreme cases, they might have to borrow money from their countrymen to keep them from going hungry. The Torah treats such loans as essentially a form of charity; the creditor is not allowed to charge interest (Exod 22:26) nor, in this week’s reading, even to discount from the loan a certain sum in advance: “You shall not deduct interest from loans to your countrymen, whether in money or food, or anything else than can be deducted as interest” (Deut 23:20).


When lending money in this fashion, creditors typically demanded that the borrower offer something of value as security—a piece of jewelry, say, or a fancy item of clothing. But what if the borrower had nothing to offer except something absolutely vital to his/her own existence, such as a set of millstones, or even just the upper millstone in such a set (millstones were used by individuals for the purpose of grinding grain to make bread). The Torah forbids taking such a form of surety: “A person may not take a handmill or an upper millstone [in security], since that would be the person’s very life [as security] (Deut 24:6).


As to the procedure in claiming such a pledged item:


You may not enter his house to seize the pledge. Stand out in the street while the man to whom the loan was made brings the pledge out to you. And if the man is a pauper, do not go to sleep with his pledge [still in your possession]. Return the pledge to him by sundown so that he may sleep in his garment and bless you for it; it will be to your credit before the Lord your God (Deut 24:10-13)


This week’s reading also includes a more general pronouncement about proper treatment of a laborer:


You may not abuse a poor and destitute hireling, whether one of your countrymen or a foreigner in one of your communities in your land. You shall pay him his wage on the same day [as his working for you], before the sun sets, since he is poor and his livelihood depends on it; let him not cry out to the Lord against you so that you will incur guilt. (Deut 24:14-16).


One final example: this week’s reading stipulates that “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out grain” (Deut 25:4). This proscription is apparently aimed at avoiding cruelty to the animal: the ox might quite naturally want to stop now and then to eat some of the grain, and it would be cruel to prevent him from doing so. But rabbinic exegetes invoked this same law so as to apply it to humans as well:


If, in the case of an ox, whose life one is not commanded to preserve, one is nonetheless command not to muzzle, does it not stand to reason that a human being, whose life one is commanded to preserve, ought not to be prevented from eating [the standing grain that he plucks one by one, in keeping with Deut 23:25]? (Baba Metzi‘a 88b)


Shabbat shalom!

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