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Beit Midrash Series Parashat Hashavua

“Be Holy” – Regarding Workers Rights, Too

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In the beginning of Parashat Kedoshim, the Torah warns: "Do not cheat your friend and do not steal; do not leave overnight by you the pay of a worker" (Vayikra 19:13). The Torah repeats in Sefer Devarim: "Do not cheat the wages of a poor person … on its day pay his wages …" (Devarim 24:14-15). Chazal saw an employer’s obligation toward a worker as a very serious matter and derived that an employer who is not careful about payment can violate up to five negative commandments (Bava Metzia 111a). While Rashi claims that some of the commandments apply to all workers and some only to poor workers, the Zohar on our parasha stresses the severity of these matters even in regard to rich workers.
Following is a rough translation of the Zohar’s strong statement. Whoever shortchanges the payment of a worker is like one who takes the soul of the worker and the members of his family. He harmed the soul of the workers; Hashem will shorten his life and take away from his Life to Come. The Rabbis said that the above is true for rich workers and all the more so for poor ones. This is how Rav Hamnuna would act: at the moment his worker would complete the job, he would say, "Take you soul," and he would pay him right away. Even if the worker said that Rav Hamnuna could hold on to the money because he did not need it yet, he would not agree. Rav Hamnuna would say that just as he could not be master over his worker’s body, so too he could not be master over his soul. This is something that is reserved for Hashem, as the pasuk says: "In Your hand I entrust my spirit."
This is among the sources that illustrate the extent to which the Torah was careful that we not detract from a worker’s rights. The matter is all the more so when the worker’s economic status is low and he makes no more than minimum wage. This applies not only to the wages of waiters and supermarket cashiers. This applies also to workers in educational institutions, including Torah education institutions. Not always do they receive all the benefits that are coming to them according to the law of the State, whether it be various social benefits or timely payment. Our parasha teaches that it is not enough to be careful about the kashrut of the food that the institutions feed their students and about modesty in dress and in action. They should be even more careful not to cheat workers out of what they deserve, whoever and wherever they work.
We hope that the "Torah world" will serve as a model for proper treatment of workers, just as it should be a model in a variety of Torah-mandated areas of behavior. This is included in the title and opening of our second parasha: "Be Holy."
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