Employment, Partnership and Mutual Respect

In celebration of the release of CCAR Press’s newest publication, The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic, we share an excerpt of the chapter that Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote.

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Eternal your God.

Exodus 20:9–10

The commandment to observe Shabbat simultaneously asserts the sanctity and value of work. Just as God worked for six days of Creation and rested on the seventh, human beings spend six days contributing to the world and one day enjoying the fruits of our labor. Pirkei Avot even demands that we “love work” (1:10). An early commentary on this text explains, “A person should love work and not hate work. Just as the Torah was given through the covenant, so too work was given through the covenant, as it says, “For six days you shall labor” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 1, chapter 11).

While the Rabbis of the Talmud idealized a life immersed in Torah study, without the need to work, they also recognized both the necessity of work and its inherent dignity: “Skin carcasses in the marketplace and collect your wages, and do not say, ‘I am a kohein and a great man, and this is below my dignity’” (BT P’sachim 113a). Even the most important leader should not consider skinning animals—considered one of the most unpleasant types of work—to be below one’s dignity, if economic need demands.

From the Rabbinic fantasy of a life devoted only to Torah study, and from Adam’s punishment, “by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread” (Gen. 3:19), we might conclude that Judaism views work as a necessary evil. But this is not the only or even the majority view. God purposely leaves the world unfinished and tasks human beings with completing this world. That’s why we are commanded to work for six days, yet only to rest for one. As Rabbi Chaim David HaLevy, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Tel Aviv from 1973 to 1998, puts it, “In the Jewish worldview, work is sacred—it is building and creating and is a partnership with God in the work of Creation.”

If work is sacred, then the workplace must be treated as a holy place, in which everyone strives to make divinity manifest. According to one midrash, “Everyone who does business honestly, such that people feel good about them, is considered as though they have fulfilled the entire Torah” (M’chilta D’Rabbi Yishmael 15:26). Whereas we might be inclined to think of synagogues and other sacred spaces as being the sites of religious practice, our tradition asserts that workplaces, too, belong in this category. Therefore, employers must take measures to ensure that workers are paid fairly, are respected, and are ensured a workplace worthy of being called sacred.

This approach to the relationship between workers and employers emerges in a t’shuvah (legal opinion) of Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Chai Uzziel, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Mandate Palestine/Israel from 1939 to 1953, and HaLevy’s primary teacher. Uzziel writes:

Employers are obligated to behave toward workers with love and honor, and with goodwill and generosity. And the workers, for their part, act faithfully and give themselves fully to the work that they were hired to do. . . . The relationship between the employer and the worker needs to be a relationship of fellowship, as with an equal, and not a relationship in which one person is of inferior status, as such a relationship can lead to acts that are insulting or that induce shame.

These ideals sound beautiful, but how do we put them into practice? As always, the Jewish legal corpus translates these ideals into specific laws regarding workplace practices.

Jewish law and narrative text offer a series of specifics regarding the relationship between employers and workers, including requirements regarding fair and timely pay, expectations of mutual respect, and encouragement for workers to form unions and even initiate strikes when necessary. Ultimately, all of these details aim to create a workplace that lives up to the ideal, articulated by HaLevy, that our labor should feel like a “partnership with God in the work of Creation.”

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah:The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.