Shabbat, Labor Day Weekend, and Torah Values

September 2, 2016

Every week, Jody Hirsh, the JCC's Judaic Education Director, provides a Judaic message that is featured at the top of the JCC's weekly email newsletter. Below is the Shabbat message for Friday, September 2, 2016.

Shabbat, Labor Day Weekend, and Torah Values

This Shabbat, Shabbat Re’eh, falls during Labor Day Weekend. We usually think of Labor Day as a time for picnics and barbecues, as final summer festivities, as a time for “last splash” at public swimming pools and beaches, and as the beginning of the autumn. However, Labor Day, a Federal Holiday  has a serious  history. It was established by President Grover Cleveland in 1894 in the aftermath of the violent Pullman Strike of 1894: 4,000 Pullman factory workers went on strike, 12,000 US Army troops were called in, 30 strikers killed, 57 wounded, $80 million in damage. Although labor unions seem like a thing of the past today, their significance cannot be underestimated. Among the accomplishments of the unions are:

Ending child labor

The 8 hour work day/ 40 hour work week

Paid overtime

Workers’ comp

Unemployment insurance

Minimum wage


Workplace safety requirements

Health insurance for workers

Paid vacations and sick leave

The struggle to create unions was a long and often violent one, and many of the leaders of the labor union movement from the 1880’s onward were Jewish. For many Jews, whether consciously or unconsciously, the idea of workers’ rights comes directly from the Torah. The Fourth Commandment forbidding labor on the Sabbath is the core of limiting the work week. In addition, the Torah, in its commitment to social justice has a lot to say about fairness to the poor worker:

      • You shall not keep the payment of a worker overnight until morning. (Leviticus 19:13) On this day you should give him his wages, the sun should not set on it, because he is a poor man and his life depends on it…. (Deuteronomy 24:15)
      • [If you lend a man money, taking his coat as a pledge,] . . . you shall not go to sleep in his pledge; you must return the pledge to him at sundown, that he may sleep in his coat and bless you . . .

It’s no wonder that so many Jews, religious and non-religious alike, were activist in the labor union movements one hundred years ago. The obsession for justice is part of our collective roots going all three thousand years. Almost 100 years ago, the Forverts, the left-leaning daily secular Yiddish newspaper in New York City published an account of a Chicago convention of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union. The glowing account is full of glowing praises reminiscent of Biblical language calling on Jewish to be a light unto the Nation is almost messianic in tone:

The I.L.G.W.U. stands now in the foremost ranks of the American labor movement, mothe materially and spiritually. It is one of the most important unions in the country. It has won for its members such conditions that very few of the real American unions may compare with it. Spiritually it is in every respect one of the most progressive. It responds to every movement for justice, for light. It is always prepared to help the workers in other trades in their struggles to help the oppressed and the suffering. - (Forverts, May 3, 1920)

Shabbat Shalom

For more information on the Pullman Strike and the beginnings of the trade unions, click here