Labor Day: the unexpected Jewish holiday


My friend and I used to play a game we called “what secular date is the Jewish holiday this year?” A holiday would be mentioned, and each of us would guess. Purim, Pesach, Shavuot, etc. What a surprise to me when my friend mentioned Labor Day. ” Labor Day ? It’s not a Jewish holiday! I protested.

“Of course yes !” my friend replied. “It’s probably the most Jewish holiday there is. Perhaps the one that most deserves to be celebrated.

Being a non-confrontational person, I let it go. But every year I wondered what she meant exactly, Labor Day being “the most Jewish holiday there is … the one most worth celebrating.”

Is it because of a work stoppage one day a year which establishes an island in time, a sort of secular Shabbat? If so, it is not the strongest of parallels; once a year is a bad substitute for once a week.

Maybe the value exists in the values ​​highlighted by Labor Day. Labor Day was established as a federal holiday in 1894 through the efforts of the labor movement. The movement advocated for fair wages, safe working conditions and treatment for workers. The celebration they helped bring, Labor Day, reminds us that any service we participate in or product that we appreciate is the product of immense effort and human labor. Not only must we be grateful to others who work on our behalf, but we must be committed to supporting, fairly compensating and caring for these workers.

But how does this type of gratitude and caring for others relate to Jewish tradition?

It turns out that these same values ​​surrounding Labor Day are found early and often in Jewish tradition, and particularly in our Talmud. In Bava Metzia 83a, we read an incident between Rabba bar bar Hanan and Rav, regarding some of the hired porters of Rabba bar bar Hanan:These some bearers broke the barrel of wine from Rabba bar bar Hanan. He took their coats. They came and told Rav.

Rav said to Rabba bar bar Hanan: “Give them their coats.”

Rabba bar bar Hanan asked him, “Is this the law?

Rav replied, “Yes, as it is written,” So that you may walk in the path of good. “” (Proverbs 2:20)

Rabba bar bar Hanan gave them their coats.

The porters told him, “We are poor people, and we have worked all day and we are hungry, and we have nothing.

Rav said to Rabba bar bar Hanan: “Go give them their salary. “

Rabba bar bar Hanan asked him, “Is this the law?

Rav replied, “Yes, as it is written: ‘And keep the paths of the righteous.’ (Proverbs 2:20)

The story here in our Talmud highlights how fair treatment of hired workers is not only fair, it is required of us. These are not just suggestions for Rabba bar bar Hanan not to oppress his workers, they are mandatory laws.

True, Rabba bar bar Hanan may have suffered monetary loss, but he is not allowed to demand compensation by any means he deems necessary. Rav, as a representative of the law, asks him to return the coats and pay the wages, despite the losses suffered by the workers. Rav (and much of our Talmudic tradition) demands a standard of radical thinking and empathy in his dealings with his employees.

Judaism asserts that while a person does not need to provide or identify with a hammer, nail or any other inanimate object, when it comes to human beings there is a clear difference. . They are not just tools or tools to use and store. Their lives are worth the same as those of their employers, so the relationship should be one of respect, honesty, and gratitude.

Our tradition recognizes that there are many things in the workplace that we cannot control: valuables will shatter, anger will be lost and change will occur. Yet what we control is how we react to these events and how we treat our fellow work partners. Our shared humanity dictates that we must have compassion and respect for one another, especially in the workplace.

Maybe that’s why my friend considers Labor Day the most essential Jewish holiday. We are partners on this planet, helpers in the culture of this world. God put mankind in this beautiful “garden” of the Earth to work and keep it. It’s up to us to give our all when we work in this world and to protect each other’s rights and humanity while we do.

A worthy goal to work towards, indeed.

Rabbi Ben Richards is the admissions coordinator for the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies of American Jewish University.

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