Pekudei: Paying Workers on Time: Part 1

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03 Mar 2011

The Torah warns us in several places to pay workers right away. In fact, the Shulchan Arukh states that there are five negative and one positive commandment which one may transgress by delaying wages (CM 339:2). While it is understandable that it is praiseworthy to pay on time, it is interesting that the Torah so emphasizes this admonition. This emphasis is especially noteworthy since the Torah generally favors the debtor over the creditor, and emphasizes the importance of not being overly aggressive in collecting debts.

The reason for this requirement is explicitly mentioned in the Torah: “Give him payment the same day, don’t let the sun set on it; for he is poor, and he bears his soul for it” (Devarim 24:15). But what does it mean that the worker “bears his soul”? The simple meaning is that his soul longs for the money, so that he can buy necessities, and this is the explanation of Rashbam and others. But Rashi cites a Midrash with a different understanding: “For this payment he bears up his soul to die, [for example] by climbing a ramp or hanging from a tree”. According to this explanation, the worker deserves to get his pay right away because he risked his life for it. (Onkelos translates that the worker “gives over his soul” for the payment, which is a similar idea.)

Rebbe Natan of Breslav, basing himself on the teachings of Rav Nachman, points out that most hired work is not really very physically dangerous.

However, the world of work is risky from a spiritual and a social point of view.

From a social point of view, the hired worker is in many ways likened to a slave. We know that in general that hiring is like temporary buying (source?), so that the worker would be like a temporary slave; furthermore, we learn from the verse “For the children of Israel are slave to Me” that a hired worker must be allowed to quit when- ever he likes so that his status is not completely reduced to that of a slave (BM 10a).

The worker in a very real sense gives up his life as a free person in order to earn his daily wage. And as long as he is not paid, then his degraded status remains evident; we can not distinguish him from a Hebrew slave. Only when he receives his pay is his free status fully restored. (Based on Likutei Halakhot Breslav Sechirut Poalim 1.)

This insight can explain the dichotomy between this debt and other debts. As we explained in a previous column, the debtor is generally likened to a slave, due to the personal lien which applies. As we learn in Mishlei, “The borrower is a slave to the lender”. The Torah’s abhorrence of servitude results in a series of laws which are lenient to the borrower to keep his status from being reduced to complete subjugation, for example release of debts, prohibition of interest, limitations on taking pledges, and so on,

However, in the case of a debt of hire the implicit servitude is completely opposite: it is the worker, who is the creditor, who is depicted by circumstance as the subjugated party; as long as he is not paid, circumstances portray him as a veritable slave, working yet receiving nothing in return. So the very same principle of ameliorating servitude leads to the opposite conclusion: we have to side with the creditor to aid him in collecting the debt as soon as possible. (Likutei Halakhot Breslav, Nedarim 1)

For part 2 click here

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.