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The Challenge of Wealth

Parshas Pinchas

By Dr. Meir Tamari


The problem of job security should be a prime concern of the employees. This problem is further intensified by the present day practice of outsourcing or of transforming the employees into free agent; supposedly giving them their freedom to operate in a free market. The advantages of this to the employers are obvious; they are free of any responsibility for the ill-health and reduced efficiency of their employees due to old age. All too often, however, the employees find themselves unprotected against the natural effects of aging and unable to compete in the open market against the advantages of youth. Insurance is offered as the solution, which basically it is. However, any examination of the state of pension funds throughout the developed world will show that today that solution is not sufficient for the majority of employees. Those funds have simply collapsed or on the verge of doing so due to the modern longevity of the aged and the reduced labor force who would normally finance the pensions, because of the decline in birth rates in most of the Western world. Furthermore, the cutbacks in welfare funds over the past decades, means that there is not the public sector financing necessary.

While it is understandable that there is no responsibility on the employer regarding workers who were employed for short period to supply them with work after they are finished. However, regarding those who were to be employed for many years or for an undefined period, what is the obligation of the employer?

Almost all the halakhic discussions on the rights of such workers deal with employees of the Jewish public sector: rabbis, cantors, teachers, ritual slaughterers, etc. It is not at all clear whether the rabbinic decisions regarding such employees may be automatically extended to include the employees of private firms. It is the moral obligation of the private firm for such employees and the imposing of such welfare costs on private economic units that is the real issue. Nevertheless, despite the limitation of the halakhic involvement with public sector employees, a discussion of the relevant decisions is important, since they reveal the basic Jewish thinking on the subject. Furthermore, many decisions of present day Israeli rabbinate have extended the rights enjoyed by such workers to those employed or private firms.

The question of dismissal, either because the work has been completed or because that particular job or industry is no longer profitable, is the subject of another discussion. So too, is the question of responsibilities for the provision of assistance to members of the employees families after their death. Here we are discussing the particular problem of the aging employee while he is employed and the possibility of retrenching them simply because they have become old.

The halakhic basis for all the responsa on this problem is the biblical commandment, "you shall do that which is good and just (lit. straight) in the eyes of G-d"(Deutteronomy, 6:18).

In the following responsum written in North Africa, we find a legal basis for retaining workers who were engaged for a long period or for an indefinite length of time; both considered halahkically to be 'forever'.

"Whenever a worker is hired for a long term, then everybody knows that it is not to possible for one to really work undisturbed all that time. After all, it is normal for a person to become ill within such a period. Since the employer did not specify in their agreement that he would not retain the worker, even in those conditions that he is unable to perform his job, therefore the employer is obliged to do so" (Teshuvot HaTashbetz, part 1, section 64).

This argument has been reiterated in the decisions of Rabbi Waldenberg in modern Israel. "The custom has spread throughout the Jewish world that a long term employee who can no longer work or is only able to do partial jobs has to be supported by the employer,......this applies only to an employee whose whole income is from his salary from this employer " (Tzitz Elizer, part 2, section 26). The question of how much these employees should be paid is the subject of much discussion amongst our sources. Some authorities hold that they have to be paid only what a worker would be paid not to work, whilst others hold that one may only deduct a small proportion of the salary.

As an alternative to paying the employees a salary even though they are unable to work or to be as productive as formerly because of old age, the halakhic authorities conceived of the idea of giving them assistance in their work. It seems to be a satisfactory solution to a major problem in aging today. Many people are forced to stop working in the old age even though they are quite capable of making real contributions because of their acquired knowledge and skills, yet they need assistance. The retirement of such workers always involves an economic loss to society. Of greater importance perhaps, they usually suffer both physically and mentally from an excess of leisure time and from the dangerous and unhealthy feeling that many old people have, that they are no longer of any use. At the same time it would save us from becoming societies that consider people as being redundant or disposable.

The halakhic basis for this approach was laid down in the responsa of the Rashba in 13th century North Africa.

Question from the community of Huesca, Spain:

The character of our synagogue has served us faithfully for 38 yours years and now has substituted his son, who was those voice is not so acceptable to some of the members of the community. The cantor has argued that even though there are many functions that he can still perform, nevertheless his strength [of voice presumably) and eyesight have diminished so that he is unable to read from the Torah as previously. Therefore he wishes his son to assist him [the community being obligated to pay both of them a salary]. How are we to decide?"


"It is logical and just to assume that the public official who was meant to perform certain tasks has not undertaken to perform all of them unaided at all times. Surely the congregation did not believe that a man is able to maintain his strength and abilities all his life without sickness or other difficulties suffered by all normal people. So the cantor is entitled to have his son assist him, since this was understood by both parties" ( Teshuvot HaRashbah, part 1, section 300).

It seems that there is also a provision in the halakhic sources for the obligation on the employee to enable a worker to perform easier tasks as their strength or ability wanes. "A teacher who is ill or old, yet he is well able to teach partially [that is, fewer students or fewer hours] is entitled to his full wage and it is not permissible to dismiss him on these grounds"( Teshuvot Israel Mavrona, part1, section 134).

Copyright 2002 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and Project Genesis, Inc.

Dr. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics ( in Jerusalem.



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