Q. I did a job for someone months ago, but they keep on pushing off writing me a check. What can I do?
A. The most common reader question to the Jewish Ethicist is how to deal with people who just don't pay debts, particularly debts to outside workers (consultants, professionals, etc.) Even so, I never dealt with the question since there is no real ethical dilemma -- everyone knows they are obliged to pay debts. Yet the question comes so many times that I decided I should explain the importance of this obligation.
Putting off paying debts when the ability exists is certainly a serious ethical lacuna. The book of Proverbs (3:28) tells us, "Don't say to your fellow, 'Go away, and come back later; I'll give you tomorrow' if you have with you [the means]." But this verse also applies to any kind of debt. (In fact, the commentators explain that anytime you have the ability to do someone a favor, it's demeaning to put them off needlessly.)
But debts to workers are particularly serious, and the Torah warns us about them in a number of places. "Don't oppress your fellow and don't steal; don't delay the wages of a worker until the morning" (Leviticus 19:13). "Don't withhold the wages of the poor and needy of your brethren or the sojourner in your land in your gates. On his day give his wage, and let not the sun set on it; for he is poor, and he sets his soul on it. Lest he call on you to God and it will be to you a sin" (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).
We see that the Torah even gives the reason for the special status of wages: "For he is poor, and he sets his soul on it." What is the meaning of "setting his soul" on his wages?
The Talmud's first explanation explains that this refers to the fact that many jobs taken by poor people are dangerous, and the workman is literally risking his life. (This reminds me of the scene in Cinderella Man where the promoter warns Braddock that fighting Max Baer is truly dangerous. Braddock points out that the average working stiff also risks his life, on the building scaffold and so on.)
The second explanation is: "Anyone who withholds the wages of a worker, it's as if he takes his soul". (1) Here is one way of understanding this: When a worker provides services in return for agreed-upon recompense there is a free exchange among equals. But when no payment is forthcoming, it as if he has been enslaved. From this point of view, withholding wages is more serious than holding off on other debts just as enslaving someone is a more serious offense than robbing them.
Virtually everyone has been in a position where others owe him money, just as virtually everyone has been in a position where he hasn't managed to pay back all his debts on time. But the Torah views debts for workers' wages as especially serious, and we should give these debts special priority.
SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 112a.
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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.