There are three broad categories of work that are mentioned in the Bible: domestic labor, slave labor, and wage labor. The three categories were not necessarily static throughout the biblical period, and witnessed changes during the pre-Monarchic, the Monarchic, and the late Monarchic periods. In the pre-Monarchic period, Israelite settlements were on the whole rural and agrarian, and were built around households. The archaeological evidence supports the idea that at this stage the household was an economically self-sufficient unit. Domestic labor was divided among men and women in a somewhat egalitarian manner. Though some tasks might have been gendered, the responsibility for the economic survival of the household unit was borne equally by men and women. This included all the tasks necessary for food preparation (including planting and animal husbandry), clothing manufacture, creating household utensils, and so on.

Pressure was placed on this arrangement during the monarchy when the centralized government was in need of greater resources to support a growing bureaucracy and military. The migration to the cities also brought in its wake (and then caused) the creation of large estates. The accumulation of land in large estates in the eighth century led to many changes on the labor horizon. There was less land available for freeholding peasants to work independently. As more and more land was bought up by large landlords and gathered into large estates, there was a general shift from freeholding peasant proprietor to landless day laborer. Small landowners inevitably had to relinquish their lands and the peasants lost control of their means of subsistence and also their social and economic power. This shift to larger estates—characterized by fewer landowners and more landless peasants forced to sell their labor on a daily basis—inadvertently caused a diminishment in the economic importance of women. Men had to shoulder the burden of economic survival, which impinged upon the somewhat egalitarian relationship of the self-sufficient household of the peasant landowner. It is this type of work—the day or hired laborer, the śākîr—on which the biblical legislator focused his attention—and this will be the focus of the current article.

Slave Labor.

Slave labor was also a constant presence in biblical Israel. Slave labor took a number of different forms. There were Canaanite slaves, who were bought or captured and were permanent chattel. There were Israelite slaves whose term of servitude was six years or, if lengthened, a maximum of forty-nine years (Exod 21; Deut 15). In Leviticus 25, the Israelite slave is pictured as a debt slave. The text states, “If your kinsman under you continue in straits and must give himself over to you” (JPS). Similarly in Deuteronomy the slave laws are placed in midst of a discussion of poverty. In Exodus 22:2, slavery is decreed for a thief who cannot pay for what he stole. The Exodus 21 slave law, however, has no such context.

One scholar has suggested that the Deuteronomic manumission law (Deut 15), rather than being an altruistic act triggering memories of the exodus from Egypt (as the Deutoronomist claims in 15:15), is actually a result of the diminishing returns from slave labor. Releasing the slaves enlarges the free labor market. The costs of hired labor can be more easily rationalized into the ecosystem. While a slave has to be maintained whether or not he is doing profitable work, a day laborer might be easily let go when there is no work to be done. At the point when the expansion of aggregated estates was such that the grade of land available was poor, it no longer made economic sense to hold on to slave labor (Glass, 2000, p. 38).

Wage Labor.

Finally, there was wage labor of two kinds—free laborers who would hire out for a set period of time, and tradesmen who would create and sell products. The former are called śĕkirîm and the latter usually ḥārāšîm. A partial list of the latter would include bakers (Hos 7:6), weavers (Isa 19.9), builders (2 Kgs 22:6), barbers (Ezek 5:1), fishermen (Isa 19:8), sailors (Ezek 27:9), metal workers (1 Sam 13:19), wood workers (2 Sam 5:11), stone workers (2 Sam 5:11), gem engravers (Exod 28:11), cooks (1 Sam 8:13), millers (Judg 16:21), potters (Isa 41:25), and locksmiths (2 Kgs 24:14). These artisans are described, reported upon, and incorporated in narratives in the Bible but are not regulated by biblical law.

It is the śākîr, the hired laborer, in which the biblical jurist is interested. Two classical studies of workers in ancient Israel (Reines, 1935; Sulzberger, 1923) claim that the biblical gēr—stranger or foreigner—refers to free laborers who were locals but not Israelites. These accounts were coming to dislodge Max Weber’s claim that the gērîm were foreign tribes who came to find refuge with Israel. Much of the history of all three of these accounts has been superseded in the last century. However, the suggestion that gēr refers to a hired laborer of one’s household or clan but not a blood relative is helpful, for example, in understanding the sabbath rest law: “… you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave or the stranger (gēr) who is within your settlements” (Exod 20:10). It also makes sense of the grouping of the gēr together with the poor as marginal to society. This was the place of the hired laborer as becomes clear in one of the few legal contexts in which the legal object is the śākîr, the hired laborer.

Wage Theft.

In addition to legislating that one’s laborer must also rest on the sabbath and accompany one’s family on the pilgrimage festivals, the biblical jurist was keen on ensuring that a needy worker be paid on time. The Holiness Code records the law as follows: “You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning” (Lev 19:13). Later rabbinic interpretation ties “defrauding” with the prohibition against keeping the wages of a laborer until morning—that is, not paying him on the same day as the work is done. In context, however, this is not necessarily the meaning. The prohibition against withholding wages is set in the context of various types of fraud and theft.

In Deuteronomy 24:14–15 “defrauding” is explicitly connected to the laborer: “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it: else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt.” This law is set in the context of laws protecting a needy lender (whose pledge one must return at night so that he might sleep in it), the stranger, and the fatherless.

The Deuteronomy text makes it explicit that the laborer is needy and destitute, though this is only implied in Exodus. The verb that is translated in Deuteronomy as “abuse” is the same word translated in Leviticus as “defraud” (Brown-Driver-Briggs has “oppression” and “extortion” for √ʿ-š-k; the Septuagint has “unjustly withhold”). The reason that the transgression is so serious is because “he is needy.”

This type of economic injustice (“who cheat laborers of their hire”) is listed by Malachi as one of the transgressions for which God will pass judgment (Mal 3:5). Jeremiah also calls out “the king of Judah who sits on the throne of David” that he should “do what is just and right; rescue from the defrauder him who is robbed; do not wrong the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow” (Jer 22:3).

This law also forms the background of James’s claims against the wealthy in the New Testament (5:1–6): “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” The cries of the defrauded workers that reach the ears of God echo the verse in Deuteronomy (“else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt”; 24:14–15) but also call to mind the verse in Genesis in which God tells Cain that blood of his brother “cries out to me from the ground” (Gen 4:10). In an agrarian setting in which day laborers live hand to mouth, there is no more powerful symbol of powerlessness than being completely dependent on an employer who is withholding justly earned wages.

Rabbinic Literature.

Labor law was developed and expanded in rabbinic literature. The prohibition of withholding wages expanded within the parameters of the biblical law. The rabbis also created laws that were tenuously connected to biblical precedents (such as eating from the field in which one is working) and also laws that had no biblical precedent at all.

M. B. Meṣiʿa several distinctions into the discussion of withholding wages (9:11–12). The Mishnah distinguishes between a worker who labors during the day and one who works at night. The former can be paid his wages all night long (before dawn), while the latter can be paid all day long until nightfall. A worker who hires out for a set period of time—such as a week, a month, a year, or seven years—and ends his employment during the day must be paid that day. If the employment ends at night he must be paid either that night or the next day. The Mishnah expands the prohibition to include rent for an animal or for tools, which also may not be withheld. At the same time, the Mishnah places a duty on the worker to demand his wages. If the worker does not demand his wages on time, the employer does not transgress the prohibition of withholding.

The Tosefta (t. B Meṣiʿa 10:1) combines the verses from Leviticus and Deuteronomy together in order to assert that “one who withholds the wages of a laborer transgresses upon five prohibitions: (1) Do not defraud (Lev 19); (2) Do not steal (ibid.); (3) The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning (ibid.); (4) You must pay him his wages on the same day (Deut 24); (5) The sun shall not set upon him for he is needy (ibid.).” In a typical midrashic move the rabbis give normative meaning to all parts of the verse, even the descriptive phrases. Furthermore, the two verses are no longer redundant; according to the Toseftan reading there are two verses in order to strengthen the prohibition.

While the rabbinic expansions of the prohibitions against withholding wages follow in the well-trod path of the biblical verses and the postbiblical echoes of those verses, other areas of labor law are created with far less basis, or from whole cloth.

Eating in the Field.

M. B. Meṣiʿa introduces the right of workers to eat of the fruit or vegetables that they are picking while they are working in the field (7:2). The Mishnaic law circumscribes this right so that the worker must hew very closely to the work he is actually doing. The worker is allowed to eat only during his actual work hours and only the exact produce that he is harvesting. However, there is no limit to the amount that he is allowed to eat, according to sages (7:5). Rabbi Eliezer ben Hisma limits the worker to the value of his wages.

This set of laws is introduced with the phrase: “And these are allowed to eat from the Torah.” The Tosefta (t. B. Meṣiʿa 8:3) uses the same phrase. One would expect a prooftext or a source text for this assertion, yet neither Mishnah nor Tosefta define exactly what is meant by “from the Torah.” The Palestinian and the Babylonian Talmuds make the same claim as to what the source of the law is—Deuteronomy 23:25–26. “When you enter another man’s vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you want, until you are full, but you must not put any in your vessel. When you enter another man’s field of standing grain, you may pluck ears with your hand; but you must not put a sickle to your neighbor’s grain.” While these verses grant permission to a passerby to pick grapes or grain from a field which she has entered, the situation described in the Torah has nothing to do with working. Both Talmuds, however, make the assumption that this is what the Mishnah’s “from the Torah” refers to, and therefore reframe the verses in order to be able to derive from them the laws that are spelled out in m. B. Meṣiʿa 7.

Josephus (Ant. 4:23) might be tying this notion to Deuteronomy 23:25–26 when he precedes his paraphrase of the verses with this: “Nor are you to muzzle the mouths of the oxen when they tread the ears of corn in the threshing-floor; for it is not just to restrain our fellow-laboring animals, and those that work in order to its production, of this fruit of their labors” (Lapin, 1995, p. 162; emphasis added). In any event, there is no precedent for the level of detail with which the Mishnah describes this right. However, this mishnaic usage of the phrase “from the Torah,” as referring perhaps to a generally accepted understanding that is not explicit in Torah might help to explain an anomalous phrase in the Babylonian Talmud in regard to another labor law.

M. B. Meṣiʿa legislates that an employer cannot demand from a worker a longer work day than is customary in the place for which the work is being contracted (7:1): “One who hires workers, and instructed them to begin work before dawn and end work after dark—in a place where the custom is not to do so, the employer is not allowed to coerce them into complying.” The Babylonian Talmud, in discussing the law, says that if a worker says: “When you hired me, it was as a worker as in the Torah”; this signifies that the worker has to wake at dawn but only begin work when he arrives at the field, but he must stay at work until it is dark. This is stated by the anonymous editor, but it is immediately following upon a statement attributed to the fourth-century Palestinian sage Resh Laqish who derives this concept from a verse in Psalms 104:22: “When the sun rises, they come home and couch in their dens; Man then goes out to his work, to his labor until the evening.” From this Resh Laqish derives that a person goes to work at sunrise, but stays at work until dark. The time it takes to get to work is part of the work day while the time it takes to get him is considered as beyond the work day.

This is apparently what the anonymous editorial voice intends by saying “a worker as in the Torah.” If we juxtapose this with the Mishnaic law of eating in the field “from the Torah,” perhaps we can say that there were some common understandings of labor law that were part of an oral tradition referred to as “from the Torah” but only two of which were ultimately written down. There are, however, only these two examples and therefore this must remain an interesting speculation.

Other Labor Laws.

There are also a raft of other rabbinic labor laws that have little or no grounding in biblical verse or precedent. Mishnah and Tosefta B. Meṣiʿa address the questions of work conditions (i.e., is the employer obligated to provide a meal for the workers?); the ramifications of a work stoppage—if the worker agreed to perform a certain task and quits halfway through; fraud in hiring—by the worker and by the employer; and whether the employer can substitute in-kind payment for an agreed-upon salary. On other fronts the Mishnah addresses the issue of religious practice during work hours (a worker can say the shema, but not the amidah prayer in m. Ber. 2:4) and to what extent the worker is considered to be the agent of the employer if the worker finds an object during his time of employment (i.e., does it belong to the worker or the employer?).

One of the notable facets of Talmudic labor law is a statement attributed to one of the founders of the Babylonian academies, the early-fourth-century sage Rav: “A worker can quit even in the middle of the day.” Rav uses as his proof text “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants” (Lev 25:55). Rav reads from this verse: “they are servants to Me, but not servants to servants.” A worker is a free person and therefore always retains the right to stop working. This does not mean that he is not liable for damages he might have caused by leaving, but it does mean that a free person cannot be forced to work, for there is a drastic difference between worker and slave for the rabbis (Reines, 1935, p. 32). This is all the more notable since Talmudic law assumed the existence of slaves and the institution of slavery. Slavery was ubiquitous and not the object of moral outrage in itself. Perhaps as a result of this, the lines between slave labor and free labor were drawn so starkly.

Perhaps the most significant development in the academic study of rabbinic literature in the past 50 years is the level of historical skepticism. The classical studies of labor laws mentioned above all assumed that the laws found in the Mishnah and/or the Talmud were reflective of actual practices and that a social history of a rabbinic community in the time of Mishnah or Talmud could be written based on these sources. The vast majority of contemporary academic scholarship on rabbinics starts from the opposite pole. The assumption is that Mishnah and Talmud are literary texts and should be studied as such. While one can write an intellectual history on the basis of these texts, writing a social history is far more difficult and perhaps impossible.




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Aryeh Cohen