“Caring for Workers and Domestic Animals”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Kee Teitzei, contains an array of rather impressive, indeed, revolutionary, laws reflecting unprecedented concern and sensitivity toward both workers and animals.

The Torah states in Deuteronomy 23:25: “Kee ta’voh b’cherem ray’eh’chah v’ah’chal’tah ah’nah’veem k’naf’sh’chah sahv’eh’chah, v’ehl kel’y’chah loh tee’tayn,” When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat grapes as is your desire to your fill, but you may not put anything into your own vessel. The very next verse follows with a similar statute regarding a person’s conduct in a neighbor’s field: one may eat ears of grains that are plucked by hand, but not those that are cut with a sickle.

The Talmud explains that these laws are directed primarily at laborers who work in the fields and vineyards. While the Torah understands that laborers should be expected to produce a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, it nevertheless calls for compassion and understanding on the part of owners and employers. The Torah is also deeply concerned with the owner’s moral behavior and his relationship with his workers.

In a revolutionary acknowledgment of concern for the employees’ welfare, Jewish law permits workers in fields and vineyards to take of the fruits or the grain that they are harvesting, and eat as much as they wish. Such “snacks” may not be deducted from the worker’s wages, nor may the employer reprimand his laborers for partaking.

This particular liberty, however, is granted only to those who actually gather produce from the soil. Thus, a dairy farmer may not drink the milk of the cow that he is milking, nor may a cheese maker eat any of the cheese that is being produced. Field workers who are handling already harvested produce may eat of that produce until that particular function is completed. A harvester who is engaged in harvesting may eat only from the basket that he has just filled.

On the other hand, to protect the owner, Jewish law insists that laborers may not constantly interrupt their work in order to eat from the crop. Vineyard workers may eat only while actually working, or making a turn at the end of the row, or on their way from the vine press to refill their baskets. Furthermore, these privileges are limited exclusively to workers and not the workers’ wives or children. Once the produce has been harvested, workers who have finished their duties are not permitted to partake of the crops.

A watchman in a field or a vineyard is not considered a field worker and is not permitted to partake of the produce. Yet, it is nevertheless customary to allow watchmen to partake of harvested produce before processing. One who is guarding the stock of multiple owners must be careful to partake equally of the stock of all owners, rather than of only one. Even though, legally, a worker is entitled to eat only while working, the rabbis permitted workers to eat after they finish working on one row of crops and before beginning a new row, even though this is not actual work time. Utilizing this time to eat obviously benefits the owner since workers are not utilizing what would otherwise be actual labor time.

Workers who eat when they are not permitted or take produce home, violate the prohibition of theft.

Not only does the Torah show compassion upon workers, but also upon domestic animals. In Deuteronomy 25:4, we read: “Lo tahch’sohm shor b’dee’shoh.” You shall not muzzle an ox when it is threshing. Jews must treat their animals with kindness and consideration and are not permitted to muzzle animals that are working in the fields. These animals must be allowed to eat as much of the crops as they please. Furthermore, even shouting at an animal to prevent it from eating is forbidden.

What is the possible rationale behind these rules? Bachya ben Asher (Rabbeinu Bachya, 1263-1340, Biblical commentator of the Golden Age of Spain) attributes the Torah’s generous attitude toward laborers to the fact that the Torah is a practical and realistic document. It is only natural for a laborer who is in a field or a vineyard to want to taste the crops. In fact, even if forbidden, laborers would probably still eat of the produce. Taking human nature and behavior into account, the Torah does not demand the impossible.

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in 13th century Spain) attributes the law allowing laborers to eat while working to the Al-mighty’s desire to instill goodness into the hearts of human beings (specifically the employers), so that they may show kindness toward their fellow humans and toward animals.

While this behavior on the part of the employer is certainly noble, there is a beneficial side to it as well. Laborers who are happy and have the strength to work will not only produce more for the owner, but may, as a gesture of gratitude, even pray to G-d to bless the owner’s crops.

We see, once again, that the Torah is in a class by itself when it comes to teaching ethics and sensitivity. This is particularly impressive, given the harsh environment in which these laws were promulgated.

May you be blessed.