Withholding a Worker’s Wages

Each week Rabbi Yoel Domb writes about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.

A common problem in the modern business arena is the willingness of employers to delay paying their employees until well after the job is done. In many cases there may be economic logic behind the decision. For example, the employer’s cash flow situation may not allow him to disburse wages until he has received money from his customers, and it may be unwise for him to take out large loans with a high interest rate. However on many occasions the reason for delaying payment is simply greed. The employer may have the money but wishes to gain interest on it or use it for short -term speculations, and therefore evades his obligation to pay wages on completion of work.

For this reason, many countries have established strict laws against withholding wages, including fines which must be paid if wages were found to be unjustly delayed. However these laws can only help workers within an organized framework. Many part-time employees, one time workers and unorganized labor groups may find themselves exploited by tightfisted employers who realize that their employee has no recourse to legal action.

The Torah, with its heightened sense of social justice, is extremely concerned about the plight of these unfortunate workers. In Parshat Ki Teitsei the Torah reiterates the prohibition mentioned in Vayikra concerning the withholding of wages even for one day. The Torah adds a new emphasis here on the poor worker, who “sets his heart upon it (his wages). Let him not cry out to G-d against you and it would be a sin upon you”. (Devarim 24:15) Indeed the Talmud (Bava Metsia 112a) and the Zohar (Kedoshim) both see withholding a workers wages as equivalent to taking his life, since a) in many cases he has put his life at risk to provide income for his family, and b) he has sacrificed part of his life in order to work for his employer.

According to Chazal, a worker who works for the entire day must be paid before daybreak of the next day. If however he finishes before sunset, he must be paid by sunset. It is said that Rabbi Yitschak Luria, the famous Arizal, was very meticulous in fulfilling this Mitsva and once even missed praying the afternoon prayer until after sunset because he had to loan money in order to pay a worker before sunset. At first glance this story is puzzling, since if the Arizal did not have enough money to pay his workers, he would be absolved from performing the Mitsva, which only applies when the employer has enough money to pay his employees and does not pay them. However, we can understand the Arizal’s attitude better if we look at the terminology used by the Torah in explaining the reason for this Mitsva:

“For he is poor and has set his heart on it, and he will cry out to G-d, and you will have a sin”.

The worker is not particularly concerned as to whether the employer has a legal loophole which would enable him to avoid paying his wages. The worker will automatically cry out to G-d if he lacks his wages. For this reason the Arizal preferred to pay his worker before praying, since the worker’s tears would prevent the prayer from having any effect.

Another way to avoid transgressing this sin is if the employee did not demand his wages. The Talmud (ibid) says that the employer must be cognizant of the employee’s wish to receive his wages in order to be obligated to pay him. However the Chafetz Chaim ,Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hacohen, stresses that if the employee came to his employer at the completion of his job but did not demand his wages, he still must be paid immediately, since he is obviously coming to receive his wages but is too embarrassed to ask for them. For this reason, says the Chafetz Chaim, it is important at the outset for both parties to agree on when the worker will be paid

At this period of the year, we pray to G-d that he should remember our positive efforts in the past year and grant us a successful new year. This is therefore an opportune time to strengthen our commitment to fulfill the important commandment of not withholding our worker’s wages, since ultimately we ourselves are “employees” waiting for our own reward, and hope that g-d will grant it to us soon.

This column presents general principles for approaching business ethics topics. For specific guidelines, please refer to a halachic authority.

Rabbi Yoel Domb is a graduate of JCT and a member of the faculty of the JCT Bet Midrash. He was awarded a fellowship from the Center for Business Ethics for the academic year 2000-2001. He is currently researching topics of business ethics in Jewish Law and is preparing a curriculum to facilitate the teaching of these topics in Rabbinical seminaries (Yeshivot).