The Origins of Labor Day in the Talmud

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The first Monday in September every year, the United States celebrates Labor Day. More than just another three day weekend or signal of the end of summer, Labor Day has a rich history and some of the values can find their origins within Jewish tradition. Labor Day pays tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers and was created by the labor movement in the late 19th century.

At the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, people of all ages (including children as young as six years old), particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks.

On September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history.

What does this have to do with Talmud? In Tractate Bava Metzia with translation and commentary by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz we learn:

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Here we see a disagreement between Rav Huna, and Rav Hisda: To steal wages from a hired labor could mean that stealing causes the death of the worker OR it could mean that by delaying payment to a worker causes Heaven to remove the “robber’s” soul. To withhold wages from a worker is a serious offense and one that will be severely punished in the World to Come.

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The notes help clarify some of the ambiguities in the text and give the student more background information. The punishment is given whether or not the task was extremely difficult or even if it was a simple task!

Rabbi Steinsaltz notes the bottom line halakha is as follows:

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The Rambam, Hilkhot Sekhirut, and Shulhan Arukh bring down that neglecting to pay a laborer his due wages it as if he took his very soul.

Labor Day may be a fun time for the family and an excuse for parades, sales, and barbecues but it has a long history. A history that should not be forgotten.




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