Thursday, December 07, 2006


Rabbi Wein

Jerusalem Post 17 Kislev 5767 / 08 December 2006

One of the main laws in Jewish halacha governing the relationship between employees and employers is the ironclad requirement to pay employees for their labor and services in a timely and fair fashion. The Torah makes this into both a positive commandment and a negative prohibition. “On that very day [of his labor] shall you pay him his wages.” “Do not allow the wages of your employee to rest overnight with you.” The import of the Torah is abundantly clear.

The employer is not allowed to finance his monetary shortfall on the backs and pockets of his employees. Engaging someone to be your employee, whether that person serves as a day laborer, an ozeret in one’s home, a CEO of a major corporation or a governmental functionary, places the responsibility for payment of that person’s wages in a timely fashion squarely on the employer. It is an obligation that he cannot shirk.

There may very well be extenuating circumstances that limit the employer’s ability to discharge that responsibility. We may even sympathize with the employer’s plight and situation. But these are only mitigating factors in one’s judgment of the employer. In no way do they excuse his failure to live up to his responsibilities to pay those who work for him in a timely and decent manner.

Judaism is an exacting taskmaster when it comes to the rights of employers and employees vis a vis each other. The employee is expected to be diligent in the performance of his or her assigned tasks. The employer is expected to pay on time and provide humane and reasonable working conditions.

The Talmud also points out that if the employer is a Jew (or perhaps even a “democratic Jewish state”) there is an element of chilul Hashem – desecrating God’s name - present in not paying employees in a timely fashion if such dereliction is widely known and perceived. I remember that when I headed a yeshiva for a number of decades I was always faced with the problem of the monthly shortfall of cash to pay the teachers on time.

I therefore entered into an arrangement with a number of them that I would commit myself to their receiving their full wages on a twice a year basis though I would endeavor to pay them regularly on a monthly basis if I could. Though this arrangement was legally and halachically valid, I always had great pangs of guilt within me when there were certain months when the yeshiva simply did not have the funds to pay them. Because of this responsibility the yeshiva financed its periodic deficits through loans from banks and individuals, advance tuition payments and other sources rather than have the teachers alone carry the burden of the cash short fall.

Yet in spite of all good efforts there were months when the payroll was not met. I felt and still feel that there was no legitimate excuse for failing in that responsibility even though the teachers had agreed to its likelihood of happening prior to their acceptance of their tasks of employment. The conscience of the Torah’s moral law, over and above its legal strictures, haunts us all.

The coming of the mass production factory in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s produced terrible working conditions. Unhealthy physical environments, dangerous machinery, sound and air pollution, long working hours and niggardly wages all combined to create seething resentment amongst the workers against their employers. Many of the owners of these factories were Jews and many of them professed to be observant Jews. But their Torah observance did not extend to conditions on the factory floor.

This was especially true in Jewish Eastern Europe and in the garment trades in New York’s immigrant Jewish society. This worker resentment drove hundreds of thousands of Jews into adopting the ideas and worldview of Marxism with its concurrent abandonment of Jewish observance and tradition as a cure all for the ills of the laborers. Unfortunately the “dictatorship of the proletariat” proved itself to be just as harsh and cruel as all other forms of dictatorships. Its negative effects are felt until today throughout the Jewish world.

Through legislation, labor unions, enlightened employers and a sense of the individual responsibility that the Torah’s moral standard of employer-employee relationships demands from us, the situation of the laborer has vastly improved. But one constant remains in all of this: The worker is to be paid in a timely fashion as per the agreement entered into with his employer. The Torah’s standards for correct and fair human behavior and interpersonal relationships has never wavered or changed.

Weekly Parsha 17 Kislev 5767 / 08 December 2006


Our father Abraham had the greatness and ability to transform three seemingly Bedouin Arabs into angels when they visited his home. In this week’s parsha, Eisav has the destructive quality of converting, according to one Midrashic interpretation, the angels that Yaakov sent to greet him into people of force and violence. The former angels literally beat up on Eisav’s men in order to make Eisav think twice about attacking Yaakov.

The lesson here is obvious. Human beings have the ability to sanctify or diminish holiness as they choose. There are homes that have the ability to structure angels and there are societies that demean and diminish even originally holy creatures into violent demons. The problem with Eisav is that he is interested in holiness and spirituality. But he is unwilling to pay the price to obtain them, to forgo his temporary wants and violent means of satisfying these urges. Even the angelic ideas that enter his house and society somehow become perverted into struggles and violence.

Eisav preaches love and peace and yet engages in constant strife and war. Some of the Chasidic masters interpreted Yitzchak’s blessing of “the hands are the hands of Eisav and the voice is the voice of Yaakov” as being completely directed towards Eisav. Eisav possesses “the voice of Yaakov” as well, but he completely negates the holiness and purpose of that voice by using “the hands of Eisav.”

It is not the mere idea of holiness that carries the day. It is the practice of holy behavior that matters most. A famous rabbi in America when once interrupted in the midst of his impassioned sermon by a crying child stated: “Crying children like all good ideas should be carried out.” How true!

This attitude of Eisav, preaching spirituality and goodness but not really practicing it, is very prevalent in today’s world. It is also unfortunately present in our Jewish world. Everyone speaks about spirituality and Torah while the behavior of many within the Jewish world is contrary to the tradition, values and lifestyle of Torah. The voice of Yaakov must also be consistent with the behavior of Yaakov – of the gentle person who dwells within the tents of Torah and tradition – in order for it to be truly heard.

A sham pretense of holiness, a faith that is held captive to current and temporary social whims has little chance of ultimate meaning and survival. Judaism strives to raise ordinary people to the levels of angelic behavior. It never compromises on those goals though it fully recognizes that not everyone can ever achieve them. But it is only by aiming for the highest standards, even if we fall short of them at times, that we ordinary humans can become more angelic.

By compromising standards we end up emulating Eisav and reducing possible angels into unworthy human beings. How sad it is to let such opportunities to achieve greatness slide by us because of apathy and lack of self confidence and pride. Let us always follow Avraham and avoid Eisav’s weaknesses.

Shabat shalom.
Rabbi Berel Wein