31-5767: Mitzvah 65

Talmidav Shel Aharon
31-5767: Mitzvah 65
July 9, 2007

Mitzvah 65 – It is a positive commandment that an owner should allow the laborer to eat of what he is working at, when it is something that grows from the ground.
Hafetz Hayim: As Scripture says: “When you come into your fellow’s vineyard, then you may eat etc.” (Deut. 23:25) and it says, “When you come into your fellow’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears etc.” (Deut. 23:26) and by the Oral Tradition it was learned that Scripture speaks here of a laborer.
He may eat produce that either was plucked or is attached, whose work has not been completed yet, and by this act [of his labor] the work is completed. This means then, not before the completion of the work nor after the completion of the work, but only during the completion of the work. And for the purpose of returning a lost working time, to the owner, the Sages taught “that the workers should eat while walking from one furrow to another, and while returning from the winepress [even though they are not actually working then] so that they should not stop their work and sit down to eat, walking, and thus not be idle from their work.
If someone is guarding produce attached to the soil, he is not to eat of it at all since a watchman is not like one doing actual labor. If a person is guarding reaped produce he may eat of it not by the laws of the Torah, but by the norms of the land. It applies everywhere and in every time for both men and women.

We sometimes get so used to the Sages talking about moral laws and often neglect laws like these, which are basic labor laws. These laws are designed to help understand the relationship between labor and management. While we can also understand them as moral laws, they are really part of a genre of laws that relate to proper business practices.
What we have here is a basic law of management/labor where it spells out one of the rights that the laborers have when working in the field. Jewish law forbids a man to muzzle his ox when threshing grain to prevent the animal from eating the grain on the threshing floor. This was seen as preventing animal cruelty. If we feel that way about animals, how much more should we allow the laborer to eat of the produce he or she is harvesting!
The parameters of the law are identified here. If the reaping has not begun and the laborers are just repairing fences, then they cannot touch the grain or fruit. If the harvest is over and the grain or fruit is waiting to be tithed or other taxes need to be paid, the laborer cannot touch it. If the laborer is hired to be a watchman for produce still in the field, he is not allowed to eat from it since he is supposed to be guarding it. Normally this would apply to produce already reaped, but local custom says he is entitled to snack on what he is guarding.
Workers in the field, however, who are in the process of reaping the produce can eat from what they are harvesting. The only issue is if they spend all their time eating and not enough time actually working! The law states that when they move from field to field, or from one row to another, or when they are dropping off the grain or grapes at the barn or the winepress, they can eat while they are walking. This is not in lieu of a lunch break, for laborers were required to bring their own lunch and could sit for a while and eat it. This is just a snack during the day and they are supposed to keep working while they are “snacking”. To do otherwise would be stealing time from the owner of the field. I suspect that this walking rule also prevented the workers from eating too much of the produce they were harvesting.
Thus both the landowner and the laborer understood their responsibilities during the harvest and the work got done, and the laborer was treated with respect. It is not too bad a system. We will see more about worker rights in our next lesson.

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