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The Jewish Ethicist - I Quit

The Jewish Ethicist - I Quit

Can I renege on my work agreement?


Q.I recently agreed to take a job, and in response the employer stopped interviewing candidates. But now I've been offered a much better job. Can I go back on my agreement?

A. In a recent column, we explained that binding agreements should always be honored, and even agreements that, due to some technicality, are not yet binding should be honored unless there is a substantive and unexpected change in circumstances.

Many readers wrote with questions relating to reneging on work agreements, or quitting a job without giving adequate notice. (A person is always allowed to quit a job if customary notice is given.) Of course a work agreement is also a solemn agreement which should not be treated lightly, but Jewish tradition starkly distinguishes between labor contracts and other types. The reason is simple: compelling someone to fulfill a labor contract is like a short-term analog of servitude; yet the central theme of the Torah is the ideal of freedom.

Time and again, the Torah reminds the Jewish people that we owe allegiance to God because He freed us from servitude. Even before the Exodus, God tells Moses: "Therefore, go tell the children of Israel, I am the Lord; I will take you out of the suffering of Egypt, and save you from their servitude, and redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. And I will take you to me as a people, and I will be to you God, and you will know that I am the Lord your God who takes you out of the servitude of Egypt" (Exodus 6:6-7). After the Exodus, God tells us, "And you shall keep my commandments and do them; I am the Lord. . . Who took you out of the land of Egypt to by your God; I am the Lord" (Lev. 22:31-33).

The redemption from Egypt is mentioned specifically as the basis for many ritual commandments such as tefillin (Exodus 13:9), the Passover sacrifice (Exodus 13:14, 23:15 and elsewhere), the sukkah (Exodus 23:43), tzitzit or fringes (Numbers 15:41) and others. But it is particularly prominent as the basis for commandments to enforce the freedom of others: to free indentured servants and not employ them in a demeaning fashion (Leviticus 25), to give them a generous severance grant (Deuteronomy 15:15), and to give them Sabbath rest (Deuteronomy 5:14), and to have mercy on the poor and helpless and judge them fairly (Deuteronomy 24:18). This also includes not to exploit the unwitting or powerless with misleading measures (Leviticus 19:36) or with usurious loans (Leviticus 25:38).

The sages of the Talmud extrapolated from this freedom principle that a hired worker is allowed to quit any time he or she wants, without a penalty. God says of His people, "They are My servants, whom I took out from the land of Egypt; they may not be sold like chattel slaves" (Leviticus 25:38). The Talmud explains: My servants, and not servants to servants (that is, to other human beings). (1)

It follows that even after a person agrees to take a job, or even if he or she has already begun working, the worker can change his or her mind and decide to leave the job for some other pursuit.

However, this permission has legal, ethical and practical reservations.

One important legal reservation is that this does not apply when the retraction would involve a loss on the part of the employer, when the employer has reasonably relied on the employee's promise. It's easy to find a band for a wedding, so if a few weeks beforehand the band decides they can't make it they are within their rights to retract. But it's almost impossible to find a suitable band on very short notice, so it's not permissible to call up the same day and announce you've decided to skip the gig. (2)

Many early authorities suggest out that since the entire reason for the leniency allowing retraction is human freedom, a person may not retract merely because someone else offers more money. (3) Servants of God may rightfully refuse to be servants to their fellow man, but in this case the worker is perfectly happy to be a servant, he just wants to obtain more money for it. The application of this reservation is often unclear. It is unusual that the only difference between two jobs is the salary; in general there are also different conditions, chances for advancement, etc. All these affect our freedom. Also, sometimes a higher salary can increase a person's means so much that they create a meaningful improvement in freedom and opportunity. However, on an ethical level getting more pay is a poor reason to renege on a firm work commitment.

On the practical level, job-hopping can be a very dangerous strategy. At the height of the high-tech boom, some workers enjoyed playing a kind of professional musical chairs, dancing from one position to another with higher pay each time. But many of these individuals were left without a chair when the music stopped. In addition, word gets around and employers may be reluctant to hire someone who they perceive as having insufficient commitment.

If you really believe that the new job will offer you significantly better opportunities in the long term, then you are within your rights to offer your regrets to the first employer. The new job is similar to the unexpected change of circumstances we discussed by other kinds of agreements. But if the benefit is limited to a quick buck, you should carefully consider if this benefit outweighs your commitment to the first employer and your reputation for reliability.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 10a (2) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 75b (3) Tur and Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 333.

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

August 11, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) Natalie Kehr, October 19, 2007 11:28 PM

Try being honest with the first employer

When my circumstances changed between the time I was offered a job and the time I was due to start work I was honest with the employer and told him about the change. I also said that I would obviously keep my commitment to work for him, but I would probably not continue in the job long enough to become really productive. I asked him if he would prefer me to quit now. My last communication from him was a very grateful letter. My actions cost me the opportunity to learn about his business, but I felt I had done the right thing.

In the circumstances described, the first employer could be given the opportunity of deciding if he really wants a short term employee who knows that he could get more money elsewhere.

(3) Stuart Davis, August 15, 2007 8:46 PM

Your word is your bond

The question displays a lack of maturity. If you are still waiting on responses from potential employers, you should not commit. If you lose out on some opportunities that is the price you pay for your integrity. I would not trust this fellow.

(2) David Tzvi Hersh, August 14, 2007 1:55 PM

I agree

I agree 100% with your response. One additional consideration. In many work relationships, the Employee is considered an "At Will" employee. And at the onset of employment, the new hire is told that employment may be terminated by either party, at any time, with or without cause. The employer uses that clause in an employment agreement to protect themselves for a variety of reasons. But that agreement runs both ways. An employee may also give notice at any time. But a good reputation is valuable as gold and any decision should be taken after careful consideration of all the facts.

(1) MJ, August 14, 2007 1:23 PM

The Compromise answer

Talmud or not's a possible answer to the question:
What's the essential point in both cases (ie employer & employee)? -- The employer wants someone qualified to do the job he asked for. You fit his bill. Now you have a better offer and you want to advance -- OK fine. So propose to the first employer to help him interview and find the person who would be suitable to replace you - so that He (your 1st employer) does not have to lose much of his time and/or money looking and can be assured of someone as good as you (or better) to fill the job he needs done -- even if this cost You a little time and/or some extra money -- he can still have the satisfaction of having his job correctly filled - and you can have the reputation of being a "mensch". It could be that some other person would be really glad to have that job and you're not leaving 1st employer in a bad situation. AND... in most special professions -- they're small communities and word does get around - and fast. By showing your good will - it will be known that you did your best to satisfy both parties -- by just dumping him -- it will be known sooner or later and that could very well cause another employer to think twice about hiring you. Its not so important the name that one's parents give you -- as the name you (and your actions) make for themselves.

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