Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on Rabbi Meir's Meaning in Mitzvot on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh
Borrowing & Hiring
In two separate places the Torah commands us to pay workers on time. “Don’t oppress your fellow, and don’t steal; don’t leave the worker’s hire with you until morning” (Vayikra 19:13); and “Don’t oppress the hire of the poor and needy from your brother or the proselyte in our land and gates; give him his hire the same day, don’t let the sun set on it, for he is poor and his soul is set on it; so that he should not call against you to HaShem, and it will considered a sin in you.” (Devarim 24:14-15.)
PROTECTING THE WEAK
In each case the law comes to protect the party who is most likely to be weak and exploited. The poor person is the one who needs to borrow money for his sustenance, and he may be unable to compel the employer to pay on time.
Technically, the law applies to any hire, including renting out tools and animals and the like. But we see from the explicit mention of the worker’s hire, and the rationale that “his soul is set on it”, that the most important kind of hire is wages.
NOT A SLAVE
For instance, the worker may quit any time he likes for the very reason that he is a free person; HaShem says (Vayikra 25:55), “the children of Israel are slaves to Me”, and our Sages inferred: slaves to HaShem, but not slaves to other slaves, that is, our fellow men (Bava Metzia 10a).
Some sources warn a person against hiring himself out for too long a period, lest his extended hire should make him feel like a slave (Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 333:3 in Rema).
It is forbidden to demean a bonded servant with busy-work (Sifra on Vayikra 25:43). By extension, we learn that this is improper for a hired worker as well (Sefer HaChinukh 346, Maharam Rottenburg Responsa 4:85).
When a bonded servant is released, his master must give him generous gifts (Devarim 15:14); many authorities learn from this that severance pay is praise- worthy and proper. (See the Chinukh on this mitzva.)
TAKING HIS SOUL
Surprisingly, one opinion in the Midrash states that the employer removes his own soul when he delays wages. His soul too is set on the wage he pays; his humanity is gauged by whether he relates to his workers as people with human feelings and sensitivity, or as one more factor of production to which one day’s difference in the timing of payment makes little difference (Yalkut Shimoni on Vayikra 19:13).
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Rabbi Meir authors a popular weekly on-line Q&A column, "The Jewish Ethicist", dealing with everyday ethical dilemmas in the workplace. Joint project of the JCT Center for Business Ethics and Aish HaTorah. Visit the website and submit your own Qs — www.jewishethicist.com