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The Jewish Ethicist: Paying Workers on Time

The Jewish Ethicist: Paying Workers on Time

My paycheck is late!


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.


I recently came out with a new book, Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The two-volume book provides profound insights into the meaning of the daily practices of Judaism, encompassing the entire range of contemporary Jewish observance including prayer and holidays, kashrut and family purity, marriage customs, monetary laws, mourning, and many other topics. I highly recommend the book, which took me many years of effort.

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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.

December 10, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 1

(1) Michael A. Gold, January 3, 2006 12:00 AM


During the 20's and 30's, my Father Adolph Gold and his brother-in-law Bobby Bookbinder owned a plumbing and sheetmetal shop in Monteclair, NJ. When the depression hit they owed a supply house approx. $100,000. Quite an amount in those days, I can't even imagine what that would be today. Uncle Bobby said, "Forget about them, we're not paying them a penny." Because my Father believed in being honest, every bit of that money was paid back. Also, my Father told his employees that he had to cut their hours back, but he wasn't letting anyone go. BUT if they could find work and/or better pay someplace else to go. When and if ever when this depression was over, they were quite welcomed to come back. My Father and Uncle Bobby would go over to New York City at night to work for cash just to be able to make payroll. They did this for 2 reason, 1 they had a UNION shop, owners were not allowed to work with the tools. 2 NYC was not part of their jusrisdiction, and they would not hurt their local Union and/or their local competition. This was unethical as far as the Union goes, but what chutzpuh these 2 had, to care for their employees as they did. What would present day employers do if they were in the same boat as these 2, back then??

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