Religious Life

“Labor Day Rosh Chodesh” – Weekly Words of Torah from Rabbi Davis – August 30, 2019


Shalom Chaverim

This weekend marks an important time on our Jewish and American calendars. On the secular calendar, we celebrate Labor Day and on the Jewish calendar, we celebrate Rosh Chodesh Elul, the new month of Elul.

Labor Day was promoted by labor unions in the late 19th century to celebrate the contribution of workers to the prosperity, strength and security of America. Rosh Chodesh Elul tells us that we are one month from Rosh Hashana. It begins a time of introspection as we prepare for the new year. Given the confluence of these two days, this is the perfect time to reflect on the employee-employer relationship in our lives and our society. Put simply, Labor Day asks us to consider the rights of workers. Rosh Chodesh asks us to consider their duties.

On Labor Day, we recall the Torah’s commandments directed to employers. They are called upon to treat their workers with respect- to pay wages regularly and on time, to provide fair wages, a safe work environment and time off. We read, for example, in Exodus, “Six days shall you work, but the seventh is a day of rest for you, your family and your workers and your flock.”

On Rosh Chodesh Elul, we ask, have we brought our best selves to work? Do we use our time at work wisely? In his Laws of Hiring Hilkhot S’khirut (13:7), Rambam writes: “Just as the employer is enjoined not to deprive the poor worker of his hire or withhold it from him when it is due, so is the worker enjoined not to deprive the employer of the benefit of his work by frittering away his time, a little here and a little there, thus wasting the whole day deceitfully. Indeed, the worker must be very punctilious in the matter of time and work with all his might. V’ken chayav laavod b’kol kocho.”

If he had lived today, Maimonides would challenge us by asking, how much time do you spend on Facebook or personal phone calls when you should be working. I know I do sometimes. By the same token, we live at a time when we are always readily accessible, when customers expect immediate answers. So how often do we answer emails and calls when we are home or even on vacation? I know I do.

Over this long weekend and as we begin this month of personal reflection, workers might ask themselves, Am I working b’kol kochi, with all my might, with my full attention and best efforts. Are there ways I might improve? Employers might ask themselves, am I appropriately honoring and appreciating my employees? How might I improve?

In the Torah we are commanded, “six days you shall work and the seventh rest sheshet yamim yaavod uvayom hashvii tishbot. In other words, work is not just necessary. It is a mitzvah, a Divine commandment. When we apply ourselves honestly to our work and when our employers honor our efforts, we create a healthy and holy work environment. In the process, we become Gods partner in the sacred work of continuing creation by bringing goodness to this world.