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The Jewish Ethicist: How to Help the Jobless

January 14, 2010 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

The letter of the law, and beyond.

Q. I have an employee who is quitting to look for a better job. In my jurisdiction I only have to pay severance pay if the worker is fired. Should I perhaps pay anyway to go "beyond the letter of the law"?

A. Your question regarding how to help your erstwhile employee raises two important issues of Jewish ethics, so I will divide the answer into two columns.

In this column, I want to clarify the very important concept "beyond the letter of the law". This concept is a very basic principle of Jewish ethics. It is fair to say that acting "beyond the letter of the law" is in fact part of the law. The Torah tells us (Exodus 18:20):

And you shall advise them regarding the laws and the instructions, and inform them of the way they should go and the deed they should perform.

The Talmud learns that the phrase "the deed they should perform", coming after the laws, the instructions, and the way, tells us that we should go beyond the letter of the law. It then continues:

Rebbe Yochanan stated, Jerusalem was only destroyed because they judged according to the law of the Torah. [The students objected] Should then they have judged according to the laws of the sorcerers?! Rather, they insisted narrowly on the strict Torah law, and didn't go beyond the letter of the law. (1)

So your desire to go "beyond the letter of the law" is certainly praiseworthy.

However, going beyond the letter of the law does not refer to any good or charitable deed. It refers to a particular character of ethical act: acting according to the spirit of the law even when we would be exempt from action according to the strict letter of the law. If we look at the many Talmudic cases of the principle of "beyond the letter of the law", we find that in almost all cases they involve fulfilling an obligation despite some kind of legal technicality or loophole that creates a legal exemption.

For example, in the above passage explains that Rebbe Yishmael beRebbe Yossi took on himself the responsibility for helping a workmen load a stack of firewood even though he was exempt. But the exemption was really a kind of technicality: Rebbe Yishmael was a distinguished and dignified figure who was exempt from concerning himself with firewood, even though an ordinary person would have been obligated. So this great sage went beyond the letter of the law and declined to take advantage of the exemption.

In the case of severance pay, this could be relevant in a number of cases. For example, some kinds of quitting are really de facto firings. Sometimes the law recognizes this in the form of "constructive dismissal". If circumstances made continued work unbearable for this worker so that he was compelled to quit, then treating him as if he had been fired would be considered "beyond the letter of the law".

But if the worker decided totally on his own free will to quit work, there is no technicality involved. So there is no issue here of "beyond the letter of the law". If you decide to help this person, it would be considered a kind of charity. An unemployed person is generally needy, and certainly it is a wonderful good deed to help a needy person with charity. Next week we will consider if the severance pay is the best way to provide aid to this needy person.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 30b

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