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Employer-Employee Relations

Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3 )

by Yehuda Appel

Some years ago, while living in Jerusalem, I had a friend who worked as an official in the Ministry of Education. My friend was meticulous in his behavior, following both the letter and the spirit of the law, whether involving religious or secular pursuits. He made it a point, for instance, to record the amount of time he spent each work day for private purposes such as making personal phone calls. At the end of the week, he would tally up the total time he had spent on his personal affairs and make sure to stay late at work to make up for that "borrowed" time.

This behavior is, in fact, consistent with Jewish law ("halacha"). The obligations of an employee to his employer are taken so seriously in halacha that modifications were even made in the prayers: Recognizing that employers would be shortchanged if workers spent too much time praying, the Sages composed an abridged form of "Grace After Meals" for workers.

This topic of workers' obligations is alluded to in this week's Torah portion, Vayetzei. Jacob flees from his brother Esav, and goes to Padan Aram, where he marries his cousins, Rachel and Leah. Jacob works for their father Lavan, a deceitful person who constantly changes the terms of their work agreement.

After 20 years of service to Lavan (and encouraged by God in a dream), Jacob decides to return to Canaan. But before leaving, he consults with his wives, and describes how "with all my might I worked for your father." Maimonides cites these words of Jacob as a source for the requirement that workers work a full day - and "labor with all your might."

At the same time, the need for responsible management and the protection of workers' rights is also derived from this week's Torah portion. When Jacob does finally decide to return home, he does so stealthily, fearful of what Lavan may do to him. Lavan gives chase and ultimately overtakes Jacob and his family. In the midst of the ensuing confrontation, Jacob refers to his 20 years as watchman over Lavan's flocks, and bitterly comments, "By the day I was consumed by scorching heat, and at night by the frost, when sleep was snatched from my eyes."

Jacob's comments are seen as a criticism of Lavan - a reflection on the fact that he had been treated unjustly. Jacob's words ultimately find their way into Jewish law which prohibit an employer from harming his laborers' health, and puts strict guidelines on the degree to which workers can be asked to stay up at night to work.

There are actually hundreds of laws in rabbinic literature dealing with labor-management relations. For example, failure to pay a worker his wages on time is an explicit transgression of Torah law. Through it all, the paramount theme is to ensure that neither party is taken advantage of, and that respect is maintained for each person as having been created in the image of God.

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