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Wage Earner

Workers of the world, unite! Is this the slogan of the ninth chapter of Bava Metzia? Two Biblical principles are explicated in the second part of chapter nine: the law that a worker鈥檚 wages must be paid on time and the rules about keeping the collateral given to you for a loan. These laws are mentioned a few times in the Torah. Regarding wages, one source instructs us:

鈥淵ou must pay out the wages due on the same day, before the sun sets, for the worker is needy and urgently depends on it;鈥 (Devarim 24:15)

The idea that the employer must pay his laborer by nightfall gives us a sense of the depth of food insecurity most people lived with in those days. Without his daily salary, the average person had no money to buy food to eat that night.

The second law is how one should treat collateral given for a loan:

鈥淚f you take your neighbor鈥檚 garment in pledge, you must return it before the sun sets; it is his only available clothing鈥攊t is what covers his skin. In what else shall he sleep? Therefore, if that person cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate.鈥 (Shmot 22:25-26)

The Ramban in Devarim explains that the principle for the two laws is the same. Just as without his wages the worker can鈥檛 eat, without his cloak he can鈥檛 cover himself and sleep, since he has no other garments.

In a world where workers were more often than not slaves, and even paid laborers had few rights, Jewish law requires moral responsibility towards others (albeit somewhat less for non-Jews) and see all Jews as 鈥渟ons of kings鈥

鈥淎s Abaye said: Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva all hold that all Israel are the children of kings.鈥 (Bava Metzia 113b)

The prophets built on the Torah鈥檚 moral foundation and exhorted people to worry less about their bottom line and more about the good of others. A striking example of this approach are the words of the prophet Amos who railed against the wealthy in the Kingdom of Israel who were always scheming to cheat others:

鈥淟isten to this, you who devour the needy, annihilating the poor of the land,聽saying, 鈥業f only the new moon were over, so that we could sell grain; the Sabbath, so that we could offer wheat for sale, using an ephah that is too small, and a shekel that is too big, tilting a dishonest scale鈥 鈥 (Amos 8:4-5)

Kings were meant to be the exemplars of the idea of protecting the poor and the disenfranchised. That is why God is filled with more anger over King Ahab鈥檚 expropriation of Nabot鈥檚 land than over his idolatry:

鈥淪ay to him, 鈥楾hus said God: Would you murder and take possession? Thus said God: In the very place where the dogs lapped up Nabot鈥檚 blood, the dogs will lap up your blood too.鈥欌 (Kings 1 21:19)

Can we find any evidence in archaeology of the struggle to uphold these powerful ideals? Perhaps the most famous example is an ostraca, a piece of pottery 鈥渟crap paper,鈥 found in 1960 at an archaeological site on the southern coast of Israel. A large fortress was excavated there that is dated to the seventh century BCE. It was probably built by Josiah, the last righteous king of Judah. In this fortress, dubbed Metzad Hashavyahu, were a number of ostraca with writing in the ancient Hebrew script. The one that stands out is a petition from a worker to someone, maybe the local ruler of the fortress, which is a mixture of our two laws about wages and collateral. He writes an impassioned plea to have his cloak returned as it was taken unjustly:

“Let my lord, the governor, hear the word of his servant! Your servant is a reaper. . . 聽When your servant had finished the harvest, and was storing (the grain) during these days, Hoshavyahu came, the son of Shobi, and he seized the garment of your servant, when I had finished my harvest. It (is already now some) days (since) he took the garment of your servant. And all my companions can bear witness for me – they who reaped with me in the heat of the harvest – yes, my companions can bear witness for me. Amen! I am innocent from guilt. And he stole my garment! It is for the governor to give back the garment of his servant. . ..” (Wikipedia quoting the translation of Klaas Smelik, Writings from Ancient Israel, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991, page 96.)

Did the overseer seize the cloak as a punishment? As collateral for the worker to finish his allotment of reaping? We don鈥檛 know. But in his letter we hear a strong articulate voice of a worker who knows what he is owed. It gives us a sense that the laws of the Torah were not dusty artifacts but living, if sometimes willfully ignored, rules.

A replica of the ostraca

GU-theolog, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What about the rich people? Unlike the poor, they had more to leave behind for archaeologists to find. If we return to the prophet Amos, his indictment of the wealthy of Samaria includes a description of their fabulous banquets where they sit on ivory couches:

鈥淭hey lie on ivory beds, lolling on their couches,
Feasting on lambs from the flock and on calves from the stalls.鈥澛 (Amos 6:4)

About one hundred years ago, in excavations in the ancient city of Samaria, beautiful and intricate ivory decorations were discovered in what was probably the royal palace of Omri and his son Ahab. They have been dated to the ninth-eighth centuries BCE, a century earlier than the time of Amos. This is the second largest collection of ivories in the Ancient Near East and it confirms that the luxuries that Amos saw as proof of extortion and inequity were real and not the product of his imagination.

Ivory figurines from Samaria

Israel Museum, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The powerful rhetoric of social justice in Tanakh and in the words of the rabbis continued through the ages and eventually was channeled into the modern labor movement, among whose founders were many Jews. In 1903 a young Jewish woman named Clara Lemlich escaped with her family from the Kishinev pogrom and came to New York. Like many Jews at the time, she found work in the sweatshops of the garment industry. At a meeting in 1909 to protest the terrible conditions in the factories, Clara grew tired of the inflated rhetoric. She climbed up on the stage and in Yiddish addressed the largely Jewish crowd:

鈥淚 have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.鈥

She then asked the assembled workers to raise their right hands and swear an oath based on Psalms 137: “If I forget you, o union, let me right hand wither.” The next day twenty thousand garment workers began a strike that lasted for eleven weeks. At the end, the workers won the right to a fixed fifty-two hour work week, paid holidays and negotiated wages.聽 Not a bad legacy for an ancient law.

The U.S. National Archives, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at
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