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Parashat Va-Yetze

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Laban and Jacob – On Employee-Employer Relations


Rabbi Yehudah Zoldan


Midrashah for Women


This week’s reading describes the employee-employer relations between Laban and Jacob.   Laban, the employer, did not treat our patriarch Jacob, who was in his employment, properly.   Jacob, in contrast, behaved with great probity, far above and beyond what would be expected.   Let us look at what the Sages and exegetes had to say in this regard in order to learn more about the relations between these two biblical figures.

I.                 Laban’s treatment of Jacob

a.      Paying wages lower than the norm

Jacob arrived at Laban’s home, where he was his guest for a full month.   Then, “Laban said to Jacob, ‘Just because you are a kinsman, should you serve me for nothing?   Tell me, what shall your wages be?’” (Gen. 29:15).  The text does not say what the terms of Jacob’s employment were with Laban, but later on we read what Jacob said to Rachel and Leah:  “but your father cheated me, changing my wages time and again” (Gen. 31:7).   Later Jacob also said similar things to Laban (Gen. 31:41).  In what way did Laban cheat him?  The midrash gives the following description (Genesis Rabbah [Vilna edition] 70.14):

For work that was worth ten coins, he paid him five; for work that was worth six coins, he paid him three.

Even in Haran there were norms of payment and accepted wages for certain jobs.   Nevertheless, Laban did not pay Jacob the full wages due him, but only half of the norm, and even this he changed (switching the kinds of sheep).

b.     Not adhering to a labor contract

According to legend, Jacob could not close a clear contract detailing his terms of employment with Laban (Genesis Rabbah [Theodore-Albeck edition] 74.6):

But your father cheated me, changing my wages time and again.   Rabbi Hiyya Rabbah said:   Everything that our patriarch received as a present, he had to pay for ten times over.   “And Laban said, ‘Very well, let it be as you say’” (Gen. 30:34).  Ravnin said, one hundred times.

When one does not have a clear contract and the employer time and again reneges on the previous agreement, changing its terms, the principal person who suffers is the employee.  But with Jacob, “G-d, however, would not let him do me harm” (Gen. 31:7).

c.      Failure to mention the local custom

Jacob spelled out the compensation he requested, aside from his regular wages:   “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel” (Gen. 29:18).  Jacob set the time framework for his employment – seven years of work for Rachel, and so that there be no doubt, he spelled things out clearly (Genesis Rabbah [Vilna edition] 70.17):

Jacob loved Rachel – since I know that the people here are cheats, therefore I am making my deal with you perfectly clear:  I will serve you … for your younger daughter Rachel’ – for Rachel and not Leah; your daughter – so that you not bring me some other maiden from the market who also happens to be called Rachel; your younger – so that you not exchange their names one with the other.

Nevertheless, when the seven years were over, after the great celebration, Jacob discovered that he had married Leah.  Laban claimed, “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older” (Gen. 29:26).  Even though Jacob had made it perfectly clear that he was working for Rachel, Laban had not bothered to tell Jacob beforehand that he could not live up to these conditions since they were against the local practice.  Quite the contrary, he expressed much satisfaction with Jacob’s proposal:  “Better that I give her to you than that I should give her to an outsider; Stay with me” (Gen. 29:19).  Even after Laban’s deceit was discovered he disclaimed responsibility for breaking the agreement, putting the blame on local practice.  So Laban made Jacob another offer:  “Wait until the bridal week of this one is over and we will give you that one too” (Gen. 29:27).  His use of the plural, we will give, is also designed to shed responsibility, presenting himself as if he would have kept his word if only he had not been prevented from doing so by the practice of his fellow townsmen.

In Jewish law, whoever does not pay his worker the wages due him commits a severe crime:

Anyone who withholds the wages of a laborer transgresses on the following five counts:   “You shall not defraud your fellow” (Lev. 19:13); “You shall not commit robbery” (ibid.); “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer” (Deut. 24:14); “The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning” (Lev. 19:13); “You must pay him his wages on the same day” (Deut. 14:15), and “before the sun sets” (ibid.) (Tosefta Bava Metzia 10.3; BT Bava Metzia 111a).

Why is it written, “for he looks to him for his life[|LR1]  ” (Deut. 24:16)?  To teach us that whoever withholds the wages of a laborer, it is, according to Scripture, as if he took his life (Sifre Deuteronomy 279; Bava Metzia 112a).

The Hafetz Hayyim, Rabbi Meir Israel ha-Cohen of Radin, wrote, “Even if he shorts him by just one penny of what he owes him, he transgresses what is written in the Torah:   ‘You shall not defraud your fellow’” (Ahavat Hesed, Part I, ch. 10, sect. 13). [1]

d.     Shifting all the blame onto the employee

Jacob tended Laban’s flock and received wages, hence his status was like that of a person who guards for pay.  Although great responsibility is placed on a person who guards for pay, since he is receiving payment precisely for guarding, nevertheless not all damages are considered his responsibility.  This, however, was not the case with Jacob (Sekhel Tov [Buber edition], Gen. 31:39):

Whether snatched by day or snatched by night (Gen. 31:39).   Whether you were robbed at night or during the day, it was my responsibility to repay the theft.   For someone who guards for pay (shomer sakhar) swears to make good for the captive and the maimed, but for the dead he is exempt.  And he must pay for what is stolen or lost, whether by day or by night.   But me you made pay for everything.

II.              Jacob’s behavior towards Laban

In contrast to Laban’s behavior, Jacob acted with great probity.   The Sages describe how he applied himself to his work (Genesis Rabbah [Vilna edition] 70.20):

Rabbi Judah bar Simon said:  In the way of the world a worker applies himself to his job faithfully for two or three hours, and then he slacks off.  But in this case, just as he served the first [years] fully, so too the last.  

This above quote refers not to just a few hours, but to many long years.   Throughout the entire period Jacob applied himself conscientiously to his work, performing his job faithfully and honestly.  Maimonides even deduced from the behavior of our patriarch Jacob the last rule of halakhah concerning a person who works for hire (Mishne Torah, Laws of Hiring, 13.7):

Just as the boss is cautioned not to cheat on the wages of the poor or delay payment, so too the poor person is cautioned not to cheat his employer of labor, slacking off here and there and deceitfully calling it a full day’s work; rather, he must be strict with himself regarding the work-time he puts in.   Therefore he need not recite the fourth benediction of grace after meals.  Also, he must work as hard as he can, for our righteous patriarch Jacob said, “As you know, I have served your father with all my might” (Gen. 31:6); therefore, he received his reward while yet in this world, as it is written, “So the man grew exceedingly prosperous” (Gen. 30:43). [2]


[1] The prophet Jeremiah, as well, reproved King Jehoiakim for not paying wages:   “Ha! He who builds his house with unfairness and his upper chambers with injustice, who makes his fellow man work without pay and does not give him his wages” (Jer. 22:13).   This was interpreted by Radak:   He who builds his house – that is King Jehoiakim (see Jer. 22:18), who built himself a palace and did not pay the wages of his workmen.   The midrash sees not paying wages as one of the reasons for the Destruction of the Temple:   “Judah has gone into exile because of misery and harsh oppression (Lam. 1:3) – for oppressing the laborer by not paying wages, as it is written, You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer (Deut. 24:14)” (Lamentations Rabbah [Vilna edition] 1.28).

[2] Jacob’s work ethics have also been discussed by Rabbi Hayyim David Halevy, “Musar Avodah,” Responsa Mayim Hayyim, Tel Aviv 1991, Part II, par. 80.

 [|LR1]   My own translation, since JPS was obviously inappropriate to the context.