Eating the Fruits While One Labors – Ki Teitzei 5773

In January 1914, Henry Ford*1* raised his workers’ salaries to $5 a day.  His competitors were paying $2.25.  He also shortened the work day from 9 to 8 hours.
The popular reason is that Ford wanted his workers to be able to afford to purchase the cars that they were manufacturing.  He wanted to increase demand for his product.
This is a somewhat simplistic explanation.
The real reason was to reduce worker attrition.  It was incredibly expensive to have workers who might or might now show up, and if they did show up, were more often than not drunk.  In 1913, Ford employed 52,000 men to keep a workforce of 14,000.
In increasing the wages, Ford did not just write bigger checks.  Half of the wages were paid as bonuses and were dependent on a number of factors.  Ford had a “Socialization Organization” that sent people to workers’ homes to make sure they were doing things the “American Way.”  No gambling or drinking.  Immigrants had to learn English.  Women could not get the bonus unless they were single and supporting a family.  Men could not get the bonus if their wives worked.
By reducing the workday from nine to eight hours, it allowed Ford to schedule three back-to-back workshifts per day.
But he did not just raise wages to improve efficiency.  Ford had much bigger ideas  He writes in his autobiography:
“The kind of workman who gives the business the best that is in him is the best kind of workman a business can have. …[I]f a man feels that his day’s work is not only supplying his basic need, but is also giving him a margin of comfort and enabling him to give his boys and girls their opportunity and his wife some pleasure in life, then his job looks good to him and he is free to give it of his best. This is a good thing for him and a good thing for the business.”
It worked. The reason it worked for those employees is not because the wages went up and the workday shortened in and of themselves.  It’s that it made working at Ford better than the alternatives.  Morale and loyalty were high because workers knew that they were getting a better deal at Ford than they could get anywhere else.
In 1913, Ford’s workers made 170,000 cars.  The next year, after these changes, they made 202,000 cars.  It went up and up from there.  Ford’s approach was adopted across the American economy, and played a big role in building the American middle class
In recent years, this has fallen apart.  Companies no longer take the approach that they need to invest in their employees the way that Ford did starting in 1914.
Over the last several decades, corporate profits relative to GDP has risen significantly.*2*  At the same time, employee compensation relative to GDP has fallen.  This is reflected in workers’ stagnant wages while corporations earn huge profits.
It seems to me, anecdotally, that workers today do not feel the kind of loyalty to their employers that Ford’s workers did in the 19-teens.
The Torah would seem to support Henry Ford’s ideas.  It is ironic because, in addition to being a business genius, Henry Ford was an anti-semite, publishing a series of articles in his newspapers that were later reprinted in a four volume set of booklets called The International Jew, which fanned the flames of all of the classic stereotypes.  It was admired by Nazis and reprinted in Egypt in Arabic as recently as 2001.
Henry Ford was apparently misinformed about Jewish values.
This morning’s Torah portion states: “When you enter another man’s vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you want, until you are full, but you must not put any in your vessel.  When you enter another man’s field of standing grain, you may pluck ears with your hand; but you must not put a sickle to your neighbor’s grain.”*3*
This has been understood by our tradition to refer specifically to laborers.*4*  Workers in the field are allowed to eat their fill while they are working.
Why does the Torah require this?  Some commentators say that it is a benefit to which they are entitled – part of a worker’s pay.
The Mishnah asks how much a worker is permitted to eat?  Of course, there is a disagreement.  Rabbi Eleazar ben Hisma says that a worker cannot eat more than the value of his wages.  The Sages permit it, but warn that he should not be so gluttonous as to close the door against himself.*5*
In other words, if a worker is too greedy, his boss is not going to rehire him, or he’ll eat up all the profits, and he won’t have a job for very long.  So he should be smart about it.  To summarize, being able to eat while they work is a benefit to which agricultural workers are contractually entitled.
The Talmud adds that the worker is not allowed to transfer this right to family members.  It is only for the worker himself.
The commentary Torah Temimah explains that if the worker does not have to spend his own money on food while he is working, it will improve his morale physically and spiritually, thereby making him a better worker.  In other words, it makes good business sense.  Like Henry Ford more than 3,000 years later, the Torah recognizes that workers will be more productive when they feel that their basic needs are being met.
A similar rationale, it seems, has led many of the high tech corporations in our area offer all sorts of supplementary benefits on their campuses ranging from free gourmet food, to exercise facilities, laundromats, daycare centers, volleyball courts, and more – anything to make workers stay at work longer and boost productivity.
A medieval work, Meirat Enayim does not think that the right to eat produce while working is a benefit.  If it was, the worker should be allowed to transfer that benefit to his wife, children, or anyone else for that matter.  Rather, says the Meirat Enyaim, it is an act of grace and kindness.
Even though, according to strict justice, a worker should not be allowed to eat the products of his labor, the Torah is telling us to go beyond what strict justice requires.  A worker should not have to spend all day long handling food that he is not allowed to eat.  That would be cruel.  We have to act with compassion and not allow a person over whom we have power to suffer, even if the details of the contract would allow it.  Just because something is legal does not mean that it is right.
The Torah reminds us that there are some things that are more important than the bottom line.  This is such an important lesson in 2013.  We are more removed than ever geographically and socio-economically from the production of the things that we consume, whether strawberries picked by migrant workers in Watsonville, iPhones assembled by 20 year olds brought in from the farms in China, or t-shirts sewed in overcrowded sweatshops in Bangladesh.
Our prosperity depends not just on the opportunity for everyone in our global society to earn decent wages, but also on the compassion that is afforded to those with the least power among us, and the ability for everyone to live a life of dignity.
*1*http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2012/03/04/the-story-of-henry-fords-5-a-day-wages-its-not-what-you-think/
*2*http://www.slate.com/blogs/business_insider/2013/07/30/henry_ford_s_150th_birthday_his_fight_for_higher_wages.html
*3*Deuteronomy 23:25-26
*4*I got some ideas for this D’var Torah from AJWS’s D’var Tzedek, written by Rabbi Joshua Rabin.  It can be found at http://ajws.org/what_we_do/education/publications/dvar_tzedek/5773/ki_tetze.html?autologin=true&utm_source=education&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20130812-E-DT
*5*Bava Metzia 7:5

2 thoughts on “Eating the Fruits While One Labors – Ki Teitzei 5773

  1. Powerful, beautiful dvar Torah, Rabbi–if it’s ok with you, I’ll share it with my colleagues at Notre Dame–Vicki

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