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The Jewish Ethicist: Servile Salary

The Jewish Ethicist: Servile Salary

Can I make my boss treat me fairly?


Q. I find my work very rewarding, but my employer is taking advantage of my dedication by making extensive demands and giving minimal pay. Can I compel the employer to pay me a fair wage?

A. We can gain important insight into your question from the Torah's regulations regarding an eved ivri -- a kind of indentured servant hired for a period of up to six years.

The Torah commands us to give the indentured servant fair working conditions:

And if your brother should diminish with you and be sold to you, don't work him like a slave. Like a paid employee, like a freeman, shall he be with you; until the year of the Jubilee he will work with you. And then he shall leave you, he and his children with him, and return to his family, and return to his fathers' inheritance. For they are My servants, whom I took out of the land of Egypt; they may not be sold like slaves. Don't give him crushing work; fear your God" (Leviticus 25:39-42).

As Rashi explains, the prohibition to work him like a slave and the obligation to work him like an employee means that he should do productive labor such as manufacture or field work, and not servile personal service customarily done by slaves. The mandate to send away the children implies that during the period of servitude, the children should be supported by the master. And the prohibition on crushing work prohibits busy work or other kind of demeaning labor.

In another place, the Torah commands us that when we free the servant, "Surely grant him a gift, from your flock and from your threshing floor and from your winery", and then explains what to do if the servant wants to remain on "for it is good for him with you" (Deuteronomy 15:13-16). Here we learn that he is due a kind of "severance pay"; from the expression "it is good for him with you", we learn that the servant's living conditions should be comparable to those of the master. (1)

So here we have the description of the ideal working conditions: decent working conditions and employer-worker relations; enough pay so that the worker and his family are able to have a reasonable standard of living; severance pay. Does an ordinary employer have to do these things too?

Most authorities rule that while all of these are desirable in an ordinary employment relationship, they are not obligatory. An indentured servant is deprived of his liberty for a period of years; in return for limiting his freedom, the master has to take responsibility for his well-being.

But an ordinary employee can decide for himself if it is worth his while to do servile tasks, or to accept a subsistence wage, and so on. According to the Sefer Hachinukh, even an ordinary employer should always be careful of giving gratuitous labor to a worker, and should ideally pay severance pay, but even these are not binding Torah commandments but rather moral lessons derived from the commandments.

What this means is that a worker who feels that his working conditions are servile or his pay below subsistence can't place responsibility on the employer; he has to take responsibility for himself. If he feels he is worth more to the employer than he is getting paid, he is certainly within his rights to bargain with the employer, and if necessary to threaten to quit or to actually quit. If the employee has legal or contractual rights which he feels are being neglected, such as minimum wage, overtime, comparable worth, collective bargaining agreements, etc. then of course he may take the steps necessary to enforce his rights.

The real question is how people get stuck in the first place in jobs which they feel are exploitative. Often these jobs are also "idealistic" jobs, and there is a combination of two factors at work: the employee fears that he will not be able to find a new job, and at the same time he esteems the work he does and fears that the employer will not be able to find an adequate replacement. Of course both of these factors are significant, and it may be that after reconsidering your ability to manage on your current salary and the importance to you of engaging in this work you will decide that you are not being exploited after all, but rather you are getting part of your pay in sekhar mitzvah -- the reward of fulfilling a mitzvah.

But as often as not, the situation is not as grave as we depict it. Most employees are able to find jobs within a short time, and most job openings are filled within a short time, so it is worth considering if your fears are really justified. Probably the best course of action is to go to your employer and state, with all sincerity, that without an improvement in working conditions and pay you will just not be able to continue. Hopefully your next employer will treat you at least as well as an indentured servant!

SOURCES: (1) Kiddushin 15a

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at

February 12, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) Shimon Yaacov, February 22, 2005 12:00 AM

age plays a part

Many thanks to Rabbi Meir for another very helpful and stimulating article. In my younger days I would take a job less for the money and more for the interest and experience that I gained. However, since my personal commitments, family and children, increased, money is more of an issue. I have reaped a reward from having had low paid jobs - they have given me the experience and knowledge I needed to get a better paid job. So fair enough, just so long as it doesn't go on forever.

(3) Yoram, February 16, 2005 12:00 AM

Excellent article

Finally an article which speaks directly to day to day struggles I experience.

I do have to say that after a 6 month job hunt in the north west and still not even getting any response at all, not even a rejection, I'm not sure I agree that its so easy to find a new job.

But I deeply appreciate you tackling such important issues relevant to so many today.

Thank you so much rabbi.

(2) Yisroel Pensack, February 15, 2005 12:00 AM

Deeper Question Unanswered

This learned article fails to address the underlying problem of why wages remain low and poverty persists despite material progress. The answer can be found in "Progress and Poverty" (1879) by the American economist and social philosopher Henry George.
In modern industrial society labor has been cut off from self-employment opportunities and compelled to work for low wages because of land monopoly and land speculation. Land values, rents and other privilege values, such as broadcast license values, rise without labor on the part of the privilege holders while labor, denied access to God-given natural opportunities, is compelled to toil for less than the value it produces. A large portion of society's total output is transformed from wages into rent by the alchemy of land speculation -- the non-use or suboptimal use of valuable land. I find it astonishing that the author fails to mention that under the Torah system every Jew was to possess a parcel of land equal in value to that of every other Jew. Denial of access to land necessarily means low wages for those at the lower rungs of the industrial high-tech pyramid. The remedy is to heavily tax land values via a property tax on land only. This will drive down rents and land prices and dramatically raise wages.

(1) Anonymous, February 13, 2005 12:00 AM

same situation

I was in a similar situation.

I worked for a company for four years and worked very hard, many times racing deadlines and staying late when most people already went home. Everyone knew I was one of those 'essential' types at the company - since so many depended on me. My job was multi-faceted. The pressure was usually very high and difficult on me.

On the flip side, I was given responsibilites that were beyond my level of training. This was a tremendous benefit to me since I learned a great deal on the job about a wide variety of skills. I worked on projects that were exciting and utilized my talents tremendously.

I resented how little I was paid and almost left the company a couple times because of it.

In hindsight (I am working elsewhere for a few years since then) I appreciate those years in spite of my being somewhat taken advantage of (financially) because of the vast experience I gained there that I couldn't have gotten anywhere else.

In the end, if a job is rewarding and you are learning a lot, it can still pay off.

As a final note to employers:

The employer has the obligation to honestly asess the value an employee is bringing to the company and compensate fairly - no matter how much the said employee is 'learning' on the job.

Because, someone who learns on the job has a valuable skill - the ability to learn and grow which brings additional benefit to the company, not less. This misperception has caused a lot of resentment and misunderstanding between employees and employers.

Value an employee on the results, not the prior experience level.

The reasoning is that an experience/skill level can increase at completely different rates depending on the talent and intellect of the person in question.

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