By Rabbi Max Chaiken from Congregation Kol Ami
Every year, Americans celebrate Labor Day weekend (also known as the “unofficial end” of the summer) with beach trips, barbecues, family gatherings, and even the additional day off from work. That’s right — on a day in which we honor the role workers have played in building the American economy, we as a nation take a holiday. That is because the Labor movement has a long and storied history in our country, and is generally credited with helping to ensure fair and safe labor standards, including relating to wages, working hours, and workplace rights.
Certain aspects of labor law continue to be controversial today. As Jews, however, there can be no question that our sacred texts repeatedly express explicit concern for the rights of workers. The Hebrew Bible contains a great number of texts on issues of economic justice, including some examples of ancient “labor law.” Take Leviticus 19:13 as a first example, which commands the Israelite “do not oppress your neighbor or steal; do not withhold the workers’ wage with you until morning.” In the Ancient Near East, most laborers were likely paid at the end of each day. Thus withholding the wages overnight was likened to stealing — it was a most basic form of economic oppression that a just society would avoid. A similar law in Deuteronomy (24:14-15) elaborates further on this principle:
Do not extort the wage of the poor and impoverished from among your kin, or the strangers that reside in your land, and within your gates. Each day you shall pay him his wage—the sun shall not rise upon it—for he is poor, and he has staked his life for it…
The additions make it clear that the Torah understands the just treatment of workers to be a matter of life and death. Workers enter the market place and offer their labor—their physical efforts—in order to sustain their very lives, and this act must be greeted with fair and timely compensation. A just society ensures that its workers, especially those who are the least well off, are paid in a timely manner, and treated with respect and honor.
One can trace the development of these ideals throughout medieval codes of Jewish law to the present day. The specific interests and issues related to workers, and economic justice more broadly, varied throughout the centuries. Yet this fundamental premise remains: a just economy helps sustain the lives of those who participate in it through labor.
This year, let us allow our Labor Day weekend celebrations to inspire us to action. We must continue to pursue and to build an economy that treats its workers fairly, and allows their labor to sustain their lives. You can call your congressperson and ask them how they’ll ensure that our moral values are included in the next Federal budget. You can donate to, or get involved with the Fight for 15, or the Poor People’s Campaign. However you advocate, remember that our sacred texts have always maintained their interest in economic justice, and you can bring those moral and spiritual roots with you as you enter the public square