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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