When I began to study Torah, I discovered the spiritual roots of my father’s social concerns. For example, my father was active in unions that were struggling to achieve fair wages and decent working conditions in an era when workers were often exploited by their employers. My father’s activism helped me to greatly appreciate the following mitzvah which requires the prompt payment of a hired worker:
“You shall pay his hire on its day; the sun shall not set upon him, for he is poor, and his life depends upon it; let him not call out against you to the Compassionate One, for a sin would be upon you.” (Deuteronomy 24:15)
As Maimonides explains in his Book of Mitzvos (#200), this mitzvah applies to both Jewish and non-Jewish workers. In addition, one who fails to pay the laborer's salary when it is due violates the following prohibition:
“Do not withhold that which is due to your neighbor, and you shall not steal; the wages earned by a day laborer shall not remain overnight with you until the morning.” (Leviticus 19:13)
“You shall not steal.” Citing the Talmud, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that this phrase is teaching us that one who withholds the wages of a worker - even temporarily - is also violating the Torah's prohibition against stealing.
The various mitzvos of the Torah regarding the just treatment of workers reinforced among our people the Torah principle of social justice. In fact, when Jewish radicals tried to organize unions among Jewish workers who immigrated to America in the early 20th century, the radicals often appealed to the religious sentiments of these workers who had grown up in the Torah-observant communities of Eastern Europe. Irving Howe, in his book about the life of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York, cites a fascinating example which was recorded by Abraham Cahan, the Editor of the Forward, a Yiddish, socialist, newspaper. Cahan told of visiting a Torah-study class of striking vestmakers and hearing one of them proclaim:
“Ours is a just cause. It is for the bread of our children that we are struggling. We want our rights and we are bound to get them through the union. Saith the Law of Moses: ‘Thou shalt not withhold anything from your neighbor nor rob him; there shall not abide with thee the wages of him that is hired through the night until morning.’ So it stands in Leviticus. So you see that your bosses who rob us and don't pay us regularly commit a sin, and that the cause of our union is a just one.” (“World of Our Fathers” by Irving Howe, page 112)
My father’s union activism also helped me to appreciate the following stories about Rav Aharon Kotler, a leading 20th century sage:
1. Before World War II, Rav Aharon served as the Rosh Yeshiva (head) of Yeshiva Etz Chaim in Kletsk, a town in Poland, on the border with Russia. The following are excerpts from a story regarding the construction of the yeshiva building, which is told by Reb Shmuel Teitzmaller:
I remember well when the decision was made to erect a building for Yeshiva Etz Chaim of Kletsk. The entire town became caught up in the excitement. It was like a Yom Tov (festival) in the streets. My own family had a special zchus (merit) in the project. We were the builders in town, a family with a long history in the bricklaying business, and it would be our job to construct the edifice.
…I will never forget the devotion with which my great uncle Hershik, already an old man, plunged into the work. Sometimes as I passed him by during the day, I would hear him mumbling to himself. “It’s a makom kodosh! (holy place),” he would say, lips trembling with emotion.
…The Yeshiva approach when it came to employee relations and compensation for labor was another aspect of the sanctity with which the building was imbued. The Rosh Yeshiva made it a habit of visiting the building site each day after Shacharis (Morning Prayers) just to greet us: “Good Morning!” he would say and bless us that we should succeed.
One day, I was engaged in animated conversation with the foreman of the project as Rav Aharon approached. “Reb Shmuel,” he said to me, using the honorific “Reb” even though I was just a bochur (youth), “What’s the matter?”
“Rebbe,” the foreman answered, before I had a chance to say anything, “There’s not enough money to pay everyone. What should we do?”
Rav Aharon’s face instantly turned pale. He turned toward the foreman, and with a deep, pained sigh gave his reply:
“Schor Yom – a day’s wages! You may not withhold a day’s wages even overnight! If we do not have the money to pay our workers, we do not build.”
The building, of course, was completed in the end, and Kletsk became known as a citadel of Torah.
2. The following story about his concern for workers took place after the war, when Rav Aharon was the Rosh Yeshiva of the Lakewood Yeshiva, in Lakewood, New Jersey (U.S.A). This story also serves as an example of how the Torah principle of kovod habrios – human dignity - encompassed all his actions. The story is told by Rav Binyamin Finkelstein, who served as a driver for Rav Aharon when Rav Binyamin was a student at the yeshiva:
It is well-known that when automatic tollbooths first came out, the Rosh Yeshiva would direct the driver to the manned ones, because of kovod habrios. (Some lanes had manned tollbooths and other lanes had automatic tollbooths.)
“The roads weren’t crowded as they are today,” said Rabbi Finkelstein, and as they pulled up, the Rosh Yeshiva told him, “The man is standing there, how can you pass him up and go to a machine! Firstly, it’s not kavod habriyos. Secondly, the more that people will use the machine, the less they will need men, and this will cause people to lose their jobs!”
The above stories appear in “The Legacy of Maran Rav Aharon Kotler” by Rabbi Yitzchok Dershowitz. This amazing and inspiring book is about the life and teachings of one of the great spiritual leaders of our people during the 20th century. This book also introduces us to the beauty, depth, and idealism of the yeshiva world. It is one of the most spiritually powerful books I have ever read. “The Legacy of Maran Rav Aharon Kotler” is published by Feldheim: www.feldheim.com .
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
The Chofetz Chaim discusses various aspects of the mitzvah to pay workers promptly in his book “Ahavath Chesed” - Loving Kindness. For example:
1. An employee hired for the day must be paid before sunset or at least before nightfall. If an employee is hired by the week or month, the employer is obligated to pay him before nightfall on the last day of that week or month. This obligation also applies to paying minors who were hired for any work.
2. An employer should never hire a worker when he knows for sure that he will be unable to pay on time, unless he notified the worker beforehand and the worker accepted his terms, or else the local usage is to pay workers on certain market days.
3. If you give someone an article to repair, you are obligated to pay on the day it is returned to you. The obligation to pay promptly applies to anyone whom you hired to do a service for you, including a driver of a coach, or in our day, a cab.
4. This obligation also applies when renting an item or an apartment from someone; thus, it is a mitzvah to pay one's rent on time.
In the preface to the Chofetz Chaim's book, “Ahavath Chesed,” there is a discussion of how mitzvos need to be performed with "kavanah" - intention or consciousness - rather than by rote. For example, before paying a laborer, a tailor, or the driver of a taxi, one should have in mind that he is fulfilling the mitzvah of our Creator Who instructed us to pay a worker on time.
The Chofetz Chaim also gives the following advice to any business person or worker who is providing others with a service: Have in mind each day that, in addition to making a living, you are fulfilling the mitzvah of doing acts of lovingkindness to others. In this way, one's livelihood becomes transformed into a central mitzvah of the Torah.
When we become aware that our mundane activities are potential mitzvos, then we can transform our daily activities into a loving service of the Creator and all creation.