Paying Workers Immediately or Within Twelve Hours?
Several Torah laws are aimed at protecting the lower classes from the abuses of the rich and powerful. One such law requires an employer to pay the wages of day laborers promptly. It appears in two different versions. Leviticus says:
ויקרא יט:יג לֹא תַעֲשֹׁק אֶת רֵעֲךָ וְלֹא תִגְזֹל לֹא תָלִין פְּעֻלַּת שָׂכִיר אִתְּךָ עַד בֹּקֶר:
Lev 19:13 You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.
Deuteronomy is more expansive:
דברים כד:יד לֹא תַעֲשֹׁק שָׂכִיר עָנִי וְאֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחֶיךָ אוֹ מִגֵּרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בְּאַרְצְךָ בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ. כד:טו בְּיוֹמוֹ תִתֵּן שְׂכָרוֹ וְלֹא תָבוֹא עָלָיו הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ כִּי עָנִי הוּא וְאֵלָיו הוּא נֹשֵׂא אֶת נַפְשׁוֹ וְלֹא יִקְרָא עָלֶיךָ אֶל י-הוה וְהָיָה בְךָ חֵטְא:
Deut 24:14 You shall not defraud a poor and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. 24:15 You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is poor and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to YHWH against you and you will incur guilt.
Leviticus lists three infractions in one verse: fraud (תַעֲשֹׁק), theft (תִגְזֹל), and delay in payment of wages (תָלִין). The infraction of fraud appears previously in Leviticus (5:21, 23) and appears to have a broad connotation, while in Deuteronomy 24:14, it is a specific reference to withholding wages.
Beyond this linguistic distinction (ע.ש.ק vs ל.ו.נ), the presentations of the laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy differ in a few other ways:
1. Your Fellow vs. Even Strangers
Leviticus refers to defrauding “your fellow”—apparently applying it only to fellow Israelites. It would seem logical that if the first law in the verse applies only to crimes against Israelites, the last law also does. In Deuteronomy, however, the law is explicitly applied even to alien workers employed by Israelites. As Jeremiah Unterman writes,
In the ancient world, this would have been an extraordinary idea – that a member of the citizenry would receive divine punishment for not properly fulfilling an agreement with an alien worker.
2. All Laborers vs. Poor Laborers
In Deuteronomy, the text refers specifically to “the poor.” Leviticus appears to be more expansive and includes all laborers (שָׂכִיר).
Rationales added in Deuteronomy
Deuteronomy’s emphasis on the poor also is reflected in the rationale that it offers for the law. Leviticus dedicated a mere seven words to the law and, as mentioned above, placed the infraction in the same category as fraud and theft. In all three of these laws, money that belongs to somebody else is in the hands of the wrongdoer. The victim of fraud or theft might be poor but might not.
Deuteronomy, on the other hand, relates to this law as a separate unit, which follows another law that applies specifically to a poor person. Deuteronomy goes on at length, cajoling and threatening the potential lawbreaker. It provides two separate reasons for paying a laborer on time.
- Compassion – The text appeals to the employer’s compassion; the employee “is poor and he urgently depends on it [his pay].”
- Punishment – The text implies punishment for those who violate the law, asserting that God hears the poor laborer’s cry.
The argument that powerless people have recourse to God to redress wrongs done to them appears previously in the Torah, in Exodus 22:21-23, concerning taking advantage of widows and orphans, where punishment is spelled out explicitly:
שמות כב:כא כָּל אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם לֹא תְעַנּוּן. כב:כב אִם עַנֵּה תְעַנֶּה אֹתוֹ כִּי אִם צָעֹק יִצְעַק אֵלַי שָׁמֹעַ אֶשְׁמַע צַעֲקָתוֹ.כב:כג וְחָרָה אַפִּי וְהָרַגְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בֶּחָרֶב וְהָיוּ נְשֵׁיכֶם אַלְמָנוֹת וּבְנֵיכֶם יְתֹמִים.
Exod 22:21 You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. 22:22 If you do mistreat them I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, 22:23 and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your wives will become widows and your children orphans.
In both the law about widows and orphans in Exodus and the law about withholding wages in Deuteronomy, the perpetrators think that the powerless victims are unlikely to have redress through the judicial system.
Hartwig (Naftali Herz) Wessely (1725-1805), whose commentary on Leviticus was commissioned for Moses Mendelssohn’s Chumash, the Biur, elaborates:
והנה המלין שכר שכיר אינו מתירא מב”ד כי אומר לו ‘לך ושוב’ ו’אין אתי,’ אבל לפני המקום ברוך הוא גלוי שעובר עבירה –
A person who withholds the wages of a laborer does not fear the [rabbinic] courts, because he keeps saying [to the employee] “Go away and come back later [for your wages],” or “I don’t have [your payment] with me [right now].” But God certainly knows that he is sinning (i.e., that he has the money but isn’t paying).
In other words, if an employer does not protect his workers’ interests, God will do so, and the employer will suffer the consequences.
3. Nightfall vs. Sunrise
One particularly significant difference between the two presentations, which brought about serious debate among traditional commentators, is that Leviticus and Deuteronomy seem to contradict each other, when it comes to determining by when the payment must be made. Leviticus states that the wages of a laborer may not remain with the employer “until morning” (עַד בֹּקֶר) – implying that the employer has all night to make the payment. In contrast, Deuteronomy writes that the sun may not set (וְלֹא תָבוֹא עָלָיו הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ) before you pay the worker, implying that the payment must be made before nightfall.
Twelve Hours (Babylonian Talmud)
Based on the difference of whether the worker is paid in the morning or evening, the Babylonian Talmud posits that Deuteronomy and Leviticus are addressing two different kinds of workers: day laborers and night laborers. The former, who work from dawn to twilight, must be paid by the next morning, while night laborers, who work from twilight to dawn, must be paid by the following sunset (b. Bava Metzia 110b):
תנו רבנן: מנין לשכיר יום שגובה כל הלילה – תלמוד לומר לא תלין פעלת שכיר אתך עד בקר. ומנין לשכיר לילה שגובה כל היום – שנאמר ביומו תתן שכרו.
The rabbis taught: How do we know that a day laborer’s wages may be paid all night long? For it is written, “The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.” And how do we know that a night laborer’s wages may be paid all day long? For it is written, “You must pay him his wages on the same day, [before the sun sets].” 
In other words, according to Talmudic law an employer has twelve hours from the time that the employees’ work shift finishes to pay them.
Rashi (1040-1105) lays the point out clearly in his commentary to Leviticus 19:13:
עד בקר – בשכיר יום הכתוב מדבר, שיציאתו מששקעה החמה, לפיכך זמן גבוי שכרו כל הלילה.
“Until morning” – Scripture speaks here of a day laborer who leaves work at sunset. The time for him to collect his wages is therefore the whole night [after the completion of his shift].
ובמקום אחר הוא אומר (דברים כד טו) ולא תבוא עליו השמש, מדבר בשכיר לילה, שהשלמת פעולתו משיעלה עמוד השחר, לפיכך זמן גבוי שכרו כל היום, לפי שנתנה תורה זמן לבעל הבית עונה לבקש מעות:
In another passage (Deuteronomy 24:14) it states, “the sun shall not go down upon it [the worker’s wages].” There, however, the text is speaking of a night laborer who finishes work at daybreak. Therefore the time for him to collect his wages is the whole day [after the completion of his shift]. For the Torah gave the employer twelve hours to obtain the money [required for paying wages].
Rabbinic law thus grants some leeway to employers. They do not have to pay their workers as soon as they finish; employers have twelve hours to obtain funds.
Immediate Pay (Rashbam)
Rashbam (Samuel ben Meir, c. 1080-c. 1165), Rashi’s grandson, offers without apology an interpretation of the law that contradicts the rabbinic tradition adopted by his grandfather, which had been in place for almost a thousand years before him—not an unusual stance for him. His comment is exceedingly terse, consisting of just two Hebrew words:
לא תלין – “[The wages of a hired laborer] shall not remain with you [until morning]”:
שכיר לילה – [The text is referring to the wages of] an employee who is working at night.”
In other words, even though the Talmud says that the verse in Leviticus refers to a day laborer, who must be paid within twelve hours of completing his work shift, Rashbam says that the text refers to a night laborer who must be paid in the morning, i.e., as soon as soon as his shift finishes. Although he does not say so explicitly, Rashbam presumably interprets the verse in Deuteronomy as referring to a day laborer, who must be paid immediately, before nightfall. Thus, his interpretation is the exact inverse of the Talmudic rabbis’.
Rashbam rejects, on the peshat level, the idea that employers have a twelve-hour grace period to come up with payment, presumably because he sees no hint of such an idea in the biblical text. As he sees it, the Torah legislates that all workers be paid immediately. Also characteristically, and perhaps impishly, he phrases his heterodox explanation of the verse using the same language (שכיר לילה) that the Talmud uses to advance the standard rabbinic understanding.
Rashbam’s non-traditional position did not escape criticism. Wessely, for example, wrote in his commentary to the verse in Leviticus,
ודבריהם נאמנים לא כדברי רשב”ם
Their [the Talmudic rabbis’] words are trustworthy, not like Rashbam’s.
Ramban’s Novel Interpretation
Ramban (Moses Nahmanides, 1194-1270) also offers an interpretation that strays from the Talmudic understanding of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, although he is less pointed than Rashbam (Deut 24:15):
על דרך הפשט ביאור ממה שנאמר בתורה (ויקרא י”ט:י”ג) לא תלין פעולת שכיר אתך עד בקר כי דרך הכתובים לדבר בהוה והמנהג לשכור הפועל ביום אחד ולערב הוא יוצא טרם בא השמש
Following the peshat, [the verse in Deuteronomy] is an explanation of the [previous] verse in the Torah (Lev 19:13), “The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.” The Torah generally speaks of the standard case, and common practice is that workers are hired for one day and they are released from their duties before sunset.
ויצוה הכתוב לפרעו ביומו בהשלים מלאכתו מיד ושלא תבוא עליו השמש כדי שיקנה בשכרו לו ולאשתו ולבניו מה שיאכלו בלילה כי עני הוא כרובי הנשכרים ואל השכר הזה הוא נושא נפשו שיקנה בו מזון להחיות נפשו
The text says to pay him “on the same day,” i.e., immediately after he finishes his work, before the sun sets, so that he will be able to buy food with his wages for his wife and children and they will have something to eat in the evening. “For he is poor,” like most people who hire themselves out as laborers. He has had his mind set on this salary to purchase food to keep himself alive.
Ramban here demonstrates his exegetical independence from the Talmud. He insists that the reasonable peshat interpretation is that the text in Deuteronomy also refers to a day laborer and that the purpose of the law is so that the poor day laborer will be able to buy food for his family to eat that night.
Ramban does not read the two texts hyperliterally:
ילמד אותנו בכאן כי מה שאמר בתורה לא תלין פעולת שכיר אתך עד בקר הכונה בו שתפרענו ביומו שאם לא תפרענו בצאתו ממלאכתו מיד הנה ילך לביתו וישאר שכרו אתך עד בקר וימות הוא ברעב בלילה
The text here (in Deuteronomy) teaches us that when the Torah said (in Leviticus), “The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning,” what it meant is that you should pay him [right away] on the same day. If you don’t pay him immediately when he departs from your employ, he will go home and remain without his pay until the morning. He might die of starvation at night.
Ramban explains that the instruction to pay the worker before sunset and the instruction not to keep the worker’s pay until morning are actually identical. During the hours between sunset and sunrise, the employer and the employee are rarely in contact with each other. Since the employee leaves his place of employment to go home in daylight, prompt payment means paying him before sunset.
Ramban’s Statement of Deference to Tradition
Both Ramban and Rashbam were accomplished Talmudists and devout Jews who nevertheless from time to time offered explanations of biblical texts that differed from standard halakhic exegesis. But when Ramban did so, he always softened the blow. Here he expresses his allegiance to and appreciation of the standard rabbinic understanding, even though he does not see it as peshat:
ורבותינו פירשו (בבלי ב”מ קי עא) כי הכתוב בתורה “עד בקר” בשכיר יום ושב לבאר בכאן דין שכיר לילה והנה לכל אחד זמן לפרעון שנים עשר שעות והוא האמת בקבלה והנאות בטעם נכון.
But our rabbis explained (b. Bava Metzia 110a) that when the Torah said (in Leviticus) “until morning” it was referring to a day laborer. But here (in Deuteronomy) the Torah addresses the rules for a night laborer. Both [employers] are given twelve hours to pay their workers. This explanation is true according to tradition and it is appropriate for good reasons.
Ramban defers to the Talmudic position, insisting that the Talmudic rabbis had good reason to offer the traditional explanation – that the employer has twelve hours to pay workers – but he does not explain the logic of their approach, even though he had just explained the logic of requiring a day laborer to be paid immediately, at the end of the work day.
Differences between Leviticus and Deuteronomy
Modern biblical critics often highlight the differences between texts in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In this case, however, most scholars assume, like Ramban did, that payment before morning and payment by sunset mean the same thing—namely, that workers must be paid when they finish their work.
Midrash, particularly midrash halakhah, is often based on a hyperliteral reading—payment by sunset and payment before morning must be two different things. But the medieval exegetes of our tradition demonstrate that they were capable of going beyond the traditional midrashic reading and, like the moderns, attempted to restore the original spirit of the text.
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April 26, 2018
January 7, 2021
Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
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