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Class Notes - Class #7

The next series of mitzvot govern the relationship between employers and employees. 

            Mitzvah #588 obligates an employer to pay employees promptly.  This is a positive mitzvah; we saw the corresponding prohibition on an employer delaying payment to workers in mitzvah #230.  These mitzvot apply specifically to Jewish employers of workers who are Jews or geirei toshav, non-Jews who have formally promised to follow the mitzvot that apply to all human beings. 

The author considers how this mitzvah applies to different work situations.  A worker hired for part of a day must be paid by the end of the day, and a worker hired for part of the night must be paid by the end of the night.  The employer is required to pay a worker hired for the day by the end of the following night, and to pay a worker hired for the night by the end of the following day.  A worker hired for a longer time period, for example a week or a month, must be paid by the end of the day if the employment period ends during the day and must be paid by the end of the night if the employment period ends during the night.  If the employer cannot pay the worker at the appropriate time because the time for payment is Shabbat, the delay is not the employer’s fault and d’oraita the employer does not violate this mitzvah even if the employer withholds payment past the end of Shabbat. D’rabanan, though, the employer is required to pay immediately after Shabbat.  But the employer’s obligation to pay does not begin until the worker requests payment. 

An employer does not violate these mitzvot unless the employer has the resources to pay up.  Nor does the employer violate these mitzvot if the employer can only raise the money to pay the workers by suffering a substantial financial loss, for example by selling things to raise the money when the market price for those things is exceptionally low.  But our author says no intelligent, responsible person would hire workers without having the wherewithal to pay.

This mitzvah also obligates Jews to pay other bills when they are due, for example rental fees of animals or objects, or workers who are hired to complete a project and are to be paid when the project is done.  As with employees, the obligation to pay is triggered when the payee requests payment.  For craftsmen, the client’s obligation does not begin while the craftsman still has possession of the client’s goods.  When the craftsman finishes and delivers the project and requests payment, the client must pay by the end of the day or the end of the night, whichever is appropriate.

The author’s shoresh for this mitzvah reflects a theme we have seen before.  Even an agricultural day laborer should be seen as a person and not taken for granted.  That worker sacrifices time and effort, climbing the tree to pick fruit, for the employer; the employer should recognize the sacrifice the worker makes and pay the worker promptly.  The worker may need the wages to buy food and necessities for the worker’s family, so delay in payment will be a hardship for the worker.  Jews should cultivate kindness and compassion, and not take the worker’s labor for granted, since God delights in kindness. 

Mitzvot #576 – 578 give us more information about hired farm hands and the farmers who employ them.  Mitzvah #576 requires the farmer to allow the worker to eat some of the produce the worker is working with.  Mitzvah #577 prohibits the worker from taking the farmer’s produce for later use without permission from the farmer.  Mitzvah #578 limits exactly what the worker may eat.

            Under certain circumstances a hired farm worker may eat some of the food the worker is working with.  Workers actively doing jobs like harvesting, threshing, sifting, picking olives or grapes, and pressing olives or grapes, may nosh while they are working.  The worker may eat food growing from the ground, but not other food.  So a worker harvesting fruit may nosh on the fruit, but a worker milking or gathering eggs may not nosh on the milk or eggs.   Only a worker who is actually doing work is entitled to eat the produce, so d’oraita someone guarding a field is not entitled to snack on the produce because that watchman is not actively working.  Someone guarding harvested crops for which the work has not been completed does not have a right d’oraita to snack, but custom in some places permits the worker to nosh.


            D’oraita, our author says, a worker working with produce that has already been harvested may snack until the worker’s work is done but not thereafter. The worker’s right to snack ends once the worker’s job is done.  Also, the worker may nosh from the time the food is picked until it is processed to the point that is it subject to agricultural taxes.  At that point it is tevel and no one is allowed to eat it until the agricultural taxes are taken care of.

The rule is different for a worker working with food still on the plants, for example someone who is harvesting crops.  That worker may not interrupt work to stop and snack, as that would be unfair to the farmer who is paying the worker to work.  But this mitzvah seems to require that there be some way for the worker to eat.  The worker gets to take a snack during natural breaks in the work, for example while the worker is moving from row to row in the course of work.

Several aspects of this mitzvah are not as clear as they might be because our author does not clearly define certain fundamental terms.  “G’mar m’lachto/avodato” “finished his/its work” is a crucial phrase in the author’s description of the precise conditions of this mitzvah.  The author discusses what the worker may or may not do before “g’mar m’lachto,” “the completion of his/its work.”  Does the author mean when the worker has complete the work assigned, does the author mean when the processing for this crop is complete, or might the author sometimes mean one and sometimes mean the other?  A worker who is weeding or is thinning onions or garlic may not eat the puny bulbs being removed since “their work is not yet complete;” in that case the work of growing the onions is not complete. But the author also says that a worker picking grapes may only eat after filling up his basket, when the worker has completed “his work.”   And there is another ambiguity:  Rambam uses the term “g’mar m’lachto ” in the second edition of Sefer haMitzvot.  Apparently the first edition of Sefer haMitzvot, which is the one our author had, Rambam used the term g’mar avodato,” and our author sometimes uses that term.  It is not clear whether there is a difference in meaning between the two phrases.

But the worker has to be mindful of the employer’s interests as well.   According to mitzvah #577, the worker may take produce to eat immediately but the worker may not pocket produce for later unless the farmer gives permission.  If the worker takes produce for later use the worker owes the farmer the value of the extra food.  A worker taking produce for later use without the farmer’s permission is stealing, so technically mitzvah #577 is redundant.  But a hired worker might think that since farmers are usually forgiving about harvesters taking some of the harvest, the worker is permitted to help himself.  God generously gives this mitzvah as a reminder to the worker that the produce belongs to the farmer and the worker may not take it without permission. (Or, similarly, an office worker can take pens from the supply closet to use for work for the employer, but may not take pens home for personal use unless the employer agrees.)

The worker may only snack on the produce the worker is working with, so someone harvesting olives may not nosh on grapes.  Someone working in one field may not snack on produce from a different field even if both fields are growing the same crop.  And the worker may only snack, eating enough to be satisfied but not more.  Per mitzvah #578, the worker who is harvesting may nosh during natural breaks in the work cycle, for example when the worker is moving from one row of crops to another, not while the worker is in the midst of actual labor. 

            As in mitzvah #588, the shoresh for this mitzvah requires the employer to see the humanity of hired workers.  God has provided the farmer with bounty from the earth.  Both the farmer and the hired workers rejoice in seeing the blessing of food God provides.  A farmer who would stop the hired worker from snacking on that bounty while working to harvest it is niggardly.  God wants us to be generous. 

            Many of the aspects of these mitzvot may be negotiable between the worker and the farmer, but overall the employer has to be sensitive to the real work environment and must provide certain obvious amenities.  The employee has to be scrupulously honest and not take advantage of the farmer, especially in circumstances where the worker’s position makes it easy for the worker to get away with things. The Torah gives mitzvot that outline some of the work conditions for agricultural workers, a common type of job in ancient times.  Presumably we ought to apply the principles inherent in these mitzvot to other employment situations. 

            Mitzvah #576, which requires a farmer to allow farm workers to snack on the produce, is conceptually related to mitzvah #596, which prohibits a farmer from preventing a work animal from eating food the animal is working with.  Both the farm worker and the farm animal get to snack on the food they are working with.

            The source verse for this mitzvah, Deut. 25:4, instructs the farmer not to muzzle a work animal working with food, but the reference to muzzling is read as just an example.  Thus, the mitzvah forbids any kind of restraint on the animal eating the food.  Even a verbal restraint is forbidden, and that verbal restraint is punishable even though in general someone is not punishable for violating a prohibitive mitzvah merely by speaking.  The author isn’t sure why that exception is made for this mitzvah.  Similarly, the source verse talks about the animal threshing, but that is also considered a common example.  The prohibition extends to any work the animal is doing.  The animal must be permitted to eat any food grown from the earth whether it is still in the ground or after it has been harvested.  And the prohibition applies to all animals, domestic or wild, “kosher” or not.  But this mitzvah does not apply to humans doing farm work.

            The author cannot resist reminding us that the rules for this mitzvah create close cases.  What if the animal belongs to a non-Jew?  What if the farmer rented the animal?  What if the Jewish farmer asks a non-Jew to muzzle the animal and then thresh with that animal?  What if eating the particular produce involved would be harmful to the animal?  What if the animal’s natural activity, like walking in a particular place, has a benefit to the farmer?

            The shoresh for this mitzvah matches what our author said about farmers allowing farm workers to snack on produce.  If we behave kindly and generously even to lowly animals we will learn to act kindly and generously to people.  We will learn to pay others what we owe them, reward others for the good they do, and allow others to share the bounty that they are working with.  The author ends the shoresh paragraph by saying that this is the proper way for Jews, a chosen and holy nation, to behave.  Notice yet again that for our author, what characterizes Jews doing what Jews are supposed to do are the good character traits of kindness, generosity and compassion.