Jews and Labor Day
Jews and Labor Day
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
On this Labor Day weekend, we can be so proud of the critical role of the Jewish community in supporting labor rights and union movements in this country. The holiday was first celebrated in 1882 and was formally established in 1887.
The Jewish historical experience, marked by periods of oppression and discrimination, has played a significant role in shaping Jewish perspectives on labor movements. Moses got his start as a pro-labor agitator when he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite slave.
Facing exclusion from various professions and economic activities in Europe, Jews often found themselves relegated to occupations that involved commerce and finance. This historical context influenced the Jewish involvement in labor movements, as they sought to address social inequalities and advocate for workers’ rights. The Jewish labor movement emerged as a response to the need for economic justice, fair wages, and improved working conditions.
Jewish immigrants, many of whom worked in sweatshops and faced exploitative labor conditions, played instrumental roles in labor organizing efforts. Leaders like Samuel Gompers, a founder of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and Clara Lemlich, a prominent figure in the New York garment workers’ strike of 1909, exemplified the commitment of Jews to improving the lives of workers across industries.
Work is traditionally seen as a source of personal pride and fulfillment in Jewish texts. We learn in Pirke Avot 2:2 “Excellent is the study of Torah together with a worldly occupation.” The 10 commandments tell us not only that it is a mitzvah to remember Shabbat and make it a holy day, but also that we should work 6 days per week. (Exodus 20:8) God creates the world, working 6 days and resting on the 7th, and we who are created in the image of God are encouraged to do the same. Teaching your child a trade is one of the primary parenting tasks in the Talmud, and if you can afford not to work, you are encouraged to find ways to volunteer in the community and to productively use your time.
Of course there is more meaningful and more mundane work, which makes it especially important to be respectful towards others regardless of their employment status. There are a myriad of requirements for how employers must care for their employees, up to and including the fact that if the household has only one pillow, the servant gets to use it, not the homeowner. (BT Kiddushin 20a) Compensation has to be fair, and a day laborer must be paid in a timely fashion. (Dt. 24:14-15) The Torah understands that the individual is relying on this money. The employer is responsible to provide a safe work environment and it is mandatory to allow bathroom breaks! the Torah requires us to be truthful. We are required to have true weights and measures because honesty lies at the heart of a strong and healthy community (Deuteronomy 25:13-15). Not only can’t you use false weights, you can’t even own them!
Do you remember the story of Aaron Feurstein? He became known as the “Mensch of Malden Mills” for continuing to pay his workers even after the textile factory he owned burned to the ground. In December 1995, the company’s factory caught on fire, causing one of the largest blazes in Massachusetts history. Work for the factory’s 1,400 employees stopped but Feuerstein kept paying them. At the time, the Boston Globe quoted Feuerstein as saying, “I’m not throwing 3,000 people out of work two weeks before Christmas.” Feuerstein also explained after the fire that he was guided by Jewish tradition. “When all is moral chaos, this is the time for you to be a mensch,” he said.
The responsibility doesn’t only go one way, however. The worker is required to show up on time, well-rested and focused. Not only is one forbidden from working all day and all night, but it is mandated that one avoid gratuitous fasts or other ascetic practices. (JT Demai 7:4)
The customer is prohibited from asking the price of an object that they have no intention of buying. It is unfair to raise the hopes of the seller frivolously.
As we enter into this Labor Day weekend, we can take pride in the Jewish emphasis on honoring agreements and treating workers with dignity and respect. Such principles lay the foundation for ethical labor practices and promote harmonious employer-employee relationships, and a fair and just society.