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Wealth And Poverty: A Jewish Analysis

Page 6 of 10

Resolving conflicts of values by practical historical experience

A similar process can be seen in the case of work. First the value. To earn a livelihood, especially by manual labour, was something to which the sages attached religious significance. It made man, in their phrase, "partner with the Holy One, blessed be He, in the work of creation".15 And it made him independent, equally essential to the religious personality. "Six days shall you labour" was no less of an imitation dei than "On the seventh day shall you rest". Great is work for it honours the workman.16 All study of the Torah which is not accompanied by work is in the end futile and the cause of sin.17 These were characteristic maxims.

One of the religious obligations of father to son was to teach him a trade, "and whoever does not teach his son a trade teaches him to become a robber".18 The rabbinic comment on the Biblical phrase, "therefore choose life", was "that is to say, a handicraft".19

Work, though, can never be a supreme value in the Jewish tradition, since there are inbuilt limits to its practice. One day in seven was set aside to rest; and the Sabbath cannot be construed as a day of leisure either, in the modern sense of the work. Essentially it was a day of establishing alternative values, and, par excellence, it was the day of continuing education for the community, through the public teaching of the Torah.

Since Torah study was a primary religious act, and could not be encompassed in a lifetime, it gave rise to a certain measure of value conflict. Most shared the view of the second century teacher, Rabbi Ishmael, that one should simply strike a balance between work and study; but his contemporary, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, took the view that "If a man ploughs at ploughing time and reaps at reaping time…what is to become of his Torah?" Evidently he felt that any time spent on work represented an unacceptable dereliction of duty. This was the kind of argument that was resolved simply enough by historical experience. Two centuries later, Abaye comments: "Many tried the was of R Ishmael and succeeded. Some tried the way of Rabbi Shimon and it did not succeed".20

Conflict of values: "rights" of employees not protected because such protection would interfere with their higher right to offer their services as they choose

There is a large body of Jewish law about relations between employer and employee. But here again, we notice the way in which the transition between value and law is not a simple one. For instance, the Bible contains legislation about slavery. It is apparent that these laws are all in one direction: protection of the rights of the slave, against both abuse and a loss of his own sense of freedom. They are, or were certainly understood to be, moves in the direction of its abolition; and slavery had already ceased to be a live institution during the Second Commonwealth.

One of the provisions of that law, to be found in Leviticus, is "Thou shall not rule over him with rigour" (Leviticus 25:43). The law, both in context and terminology, is a specific reminder of the experience of the Israelites as slaves in Egypt, where "all their bondage wherein they made them serve was with rigour" (Exodus 1:14). The interpretation of the early sages is an interesting on, in that they understood rigour to mean "that which breaks the spirit" and so read the law as relating to what we might now call job satisfaction. Two things were prohibited under this rubric: asking a slave to do something which the master did not need, but was demanded merely as an assertion of his authority; and asking a slave to do something which had no specific end-point - the example they gave was "Hoe under this vine until I return". 21

We would naturally expect that such sensitive concern for the psychology of the worker would be transferred in at least equal measure to an employee. In fact, though, a clear distinction was made: One might not make rigorous demands of a slave; but one may of a hired employee.22 The reason is obvious enough. In the case of the slave, the law was designed to place severe limits on the rights of the master over the person of the slave. In the case of a free labourer, his relationship to an employer is grounded in freely contracted mutual agreement. And since at any stage the labourer could retract his services, no protection was necessary. On the contrary, it would serve as a constraint on his right to offer his services as he chose.


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