Yeshivat Orot Shaul, Ra'anana

Online Torah

Beit Hamidrash

Going to the Workplace or Going to Work?

By: Rav Yuval Cherlow


Going to the Workplace or


Going to Work?



Toward the end of this week's parsha of Vayetze, we are exposed to one


of the indemnifying orations in all of Tanach. Its speaker is Yaakov, and it


is directed at Lavan, his uncle, who Yaakov accuses of exploiting him by


forcing him into horrid working conditions: "These twenty years have I


been with you, your ewes and she-goats have not stillborn, and I have


not eaten the rams of your flocks. That which was torn by beasts I did


not bring to you; I bore the loss of it; you demanded it from my hand,


whether stolen by day or stolen by night. This is how it was: in the day


the drought consumed me, and the frost by night; and sleep fled from


my eyes. These twenty years have I been in your house: I served you for


fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flocks, and


you changed my wages ten times" (Bereishit 31:38-41)



Yaakov, who recalls his loyalty to Lavan and to the job he had been tasked


with, despite the fact that he had been mistreated, also emphasizes the


fact that Lavan's wealth was the result of Yaakov's integrity. His sheep


were not killed by wild beasts, and his goats were not stolen, all thanks


to Yaakov's vigilant watch which remained continuous even in extreme


weather and circumstances.



It is worth paying close attention to Yaakov's pained words, if only


because they touch on one of the most sensitive aspects of the


corporate world and business community: the working conditions


that employers provide versus employee loyalty. Let us begin with


the workers' responsibilities, if only because they are responsibilities


that few discuss. Jewish law obligates employees first and foremost


complete integrity which must be expressed in readiness to work every


moment the employee is salaried for. One source which discusses


this topic is the Mishna which instructs workers in an orchard to pray


while up in the tree and not to descend, despite the fact that they


would have greater concentration with both feet on the ground. The


Mishna establishes as a matter of practice that the obligation to pray


does not permit a worker to take stringencies upon himself for greater


fervor at the employer's expense. This law provides an example of a


broad worldview that maintains that the employer, first and foremost,


must work continuously, and that any deviation from this obligation


constitutes theft from the employer. This does not mean that the


employee has no rights. No employee is his employer's indentured


servant. Nevertheless, it must be repeated that the proper norm for


everything pertaining to employer-employee relations must express


the worker's deep commitment to the employer, and if he does not,


he is essentially a thief taking wages that he does not deserve. This


means that running errands during work hours without the employer's


agreement, wasting time on the phone, surfing the internet, and writing


personal emails constitute outright theft if they harm the work routine.



We must not forget, however, that there are parallel obligations that the


employer has toward the employee. These are the very obligations upon


which Yaakov's complaints are based. He labored under exploitative


conditions and unfair circumstances. The Torah contains many mitzvot


that pertain to the employer's obligations to the employee. One of


the main obligations is the expectation to pay wages on time and


the prohibition against withholding wages. The fact that often Israel's


largest employer - the State itself - is delinquent in its payments is


nothing short of scandalous. A situation where workers dedicate their


lives, health, sanity, and even sometimes freedom for the sake of their


work but do not get paid on time or do not get paid at all is intolerable.


Another issue which Yaakov mentions is the employer's responsibility to


grant reasonable and fair work conditions. The issue of social conditions


(unemployment insurance, disability, pension, etc.) is addressed by


Jewish law as well. A basic Jewish ethos which expresses this obligation


is the Talmud's determination that "one who acquires a Hebrew slave


acquires a master". The Talmud further explains its statement, specifying:


"You cannot eat fine bread while he eats coarse bread, drink aged wine


while he drinks raw wine, or sleep on cushion while he sleeps on straw."


In the State of Israel today there are innumerable circumstances in which


the workers' dire circumstances are exploited in a gross and cynical


manner. There are tens of thousands of workers, who in the best of times


never enjoy the rights that they are entitled to, and in worse times simply


are not paid. In most cases, these workers do not abandon their place of


employ, either because they are incapable of finding alternative employ


or because they think that if they stay and continue to work hard, they


insure that someday they will still get that which they have a right to.


These workers are left with no choice in their occupations, despite the


fact that it exploits them unjustly and illegally, similar to Yaakov's rant


against Lavan. If we aspire to follow the path of our Patriarchs, we must


avoid deficiency in either side of the work ethic - indolence on the part


of the workers, and exploitation on the part of the employers.



Rabbi Yuval Cherlow head the Hesder Yeshiva in Petach Tikva and is a


member of Tzohar's administrative board


Translated by Elli Fischer