- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 27, 2002

With Labor Day approaching, some are saying that Jewish scripture contains some of the world's earliest and most enlightened labor legislation.
Consider the famed words from the Ten Commandments: "The seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God: You shall not do any work." (Exodus 20:8-11). Though its stated purpose is spiritual to remember God's acts of creation as recorded in Genesis the concept of mandatory regular days off is also the humanitarian foundation of labor law.
That passage and others and elaborations on them by authoritative Jewish sages are explored in the book "By the Sweat of Your Brow: Reflections on Work and the Workplace in Classic Jewish Thought" (Ktav-Yeshiva University Press) by Rabbi David J. Schnall of Yeshiva University in New York.
Rabbi Schnall says the Jewish tradition "exhibits a bias in favor of workers, because of both their financial need and their disadvantage in workplace relations" compared with owners. "The tradition demands that employees be treated with lenience and understanding," he writes.
Of the 900-some mentions of work in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, Rabbi Schnall notes, 84 percent were positive and reflected high esteem for work as ennobling.
A related, great biblical theme is opposition to slavery, based on the harsh slavery under the pharaohs of Egypt.
Egypt's slave labor, similar to the system in the United States before the Civil War, was distinguished from the temporary indenture of servants or slaves in Israel, which was a method of helping the poor.
Leviticus 25:39-53 specified that in light of the Egyptian experience, Israelites must not subject the indentured worker "to the treatment of a slave. He shall remain with you as a hired or bound laborer" until the Jubilee Year, a biblical institution that periodically wiped out debts.
Biblical law provided notable protection for such laborers, such as severance pay. When the years of indenture concluded, the master was directed to deal kindly with his departing servant. In Deuteronomy 15:12-15, God commanded, "Do not let him go empty-handed" and reminded the Israelites of their former slavery in Egypt.
Applying the biblical concept of compassion, the ancient rabbis were remarkably liberal concerning sick leave.
The Talmud said that an indentured worker may miss as many as half the days of his work term for reasons of sickness or injury.
In the hand-to-mouth economy of ancient times, the Bible emphasized that employers must pay their workers on time. Deuteronomy 24:14-15 said a destitute laborer must be paid his wages "on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it."
The principle of providing safety in the workplace was underscored in Deuteronomy 22:8, which required precautions when building a house. Another provision allowed agricultural workers to eat freely from the owner's crops while harvesting (Deuteronomy 23:25-6).
A key rabbinical concept is "minhag," meaning that prevailing business practices or local regulations are accepted so long as they do not violate the biblical commandments. For example, labor unions did not exist in biblical times but were readily endorsed by modern rabbis. Jewish immigrants were among the most zealous pioneers in the American labor movement.


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