One of the major subjects of American politics today is economic inequality. Over the last 30 years, we know, the vast majority of the new wealth created in our country has gone to the richest 10 percent—or even the richest 1 percent—of the population. Indeed, the problem is not just national but global: It was recently reported that the eight richest individuals in the world own more wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion put together. How can this be justified in a society founded on the principle that all men are created equal? The philosopher John Rawls proposed, in his book A Theory of Justice, that a just society could allow differences in wealth only to the degree that they benefit the least well-off. It would be just, for instance, to allow brain surgeons to earn much more than street-sweepers, because brain surgery requires special skills and extensive education, and the street-sweeper himself might one day need the services of the brain surgeon. But when inequality becomes so massive and self-sustaining, and it is so difficult for those born poor to escape poverty, how can it be justified?
As Daf Yomi readers saw this week, the idea that the power of wealth must be constrained, that the rich have duties to the poor, is deeply rooted in Judaism. In Chapter Nine of Bava Metzia, the rabbis discussed a set of biblical commandments that impose ethical obligations on people in a position of economic advantage. The first is that an employer cannot delay payment of wages to his employees; he must pay them every day if they work during the day, or every night if they work at night. “Anyone who withholds the wages of a hired laborer,” the Sages say in Bava Metzia 111a, “violates five prohibitions and one positive mitzvah.” Such a person is considered guilty of theft because he is effectively stealing from his employee as well as violating the commandment “do not oppress your neighbor.”
The rationale here is obvious: A laborer, in Talmudic times, would pay for his food and shelter by the day, and if he were not paid daily he would starve. “One who withholds the wages of a hired laborer, it is as though he takes his soul from him,” the Gemara explains. In their usual fashion, the rabbis go on to ask about exceptions and special cases. In the city of Sura, Rabba bar Rav Huna observes, it is the custom for merchants to pay their workers on market days, because the merchants make their money on those days. This is permitted because “everyone knows that they rely on the market day”: As long as the schedule is clear, the worker’s rights are protected. If the merchant delays past the market day, however, he is guilty.
Later, the rabbis ask about workers who are not paid a daily wage but receive a fee for a service. Say you give a garment to a launderer to clean, and he notifies you that the work is done. Are you obligated to go pay him immediately, before the sun sets, as an employer is obligated with an employee? Or does the obligation to pay only begin when the garment is actually returned—so that you could wait, “from now until 10 days,” to pick it up, and only pay then? According to Rav Sheshet, when you hire a craftsman to improve an item—such as laundering a cloak—you are essentially transferring ownership of the item to him. When you pay him, it is not a fee for a service, but a purchase of the new, improved item. This means that you are not obligated to pay immediately when the work is done.
A second category of biblical laws limits the rights of a creditor over a debtor. For instance, a creditor cannot enter the house of a debtor to seize collateral as payment; he must wait for the debtor to come out and hand over the collateral when it is convenient. A poor man does not lose the right to sovereignty over his house just because he is poor. The rabbis debate whether the same restriction applies to a bailiff sent to enforce a court order: Some believe an agent of the court can enter a debtor’s house, while others disagree.
A rich man does not have the right to tell a poor man that he should be content with the bare minimum.
Furthermore, a creditor cannot seize as collateral any of the basic necessities of life. If a creditor seizes a debtor’s plow, he must return it to him every day, so he can work his land and earn a living; if creditor seizes pillows and beds, he must return them every night, so the debtor can sleep peacefully. The question logically arises: If the items must be returned each day or night, why would the creditor take them in the first place? Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says it is because the obligation to return the items each day lasts for only 30 days; when that time has elapsed, the creditor can sell the items as repayment of the debt.
But how can this be reconciled with the biblical law, which includes no time limit? The Gemara proposes Shimon ben Gamliel actually meant something different: “Until 30 days, the creditor returns it to the debtor as is; from that point onward, the creditor returns to him that which is fit for him, and we sell what is not fit for him.” In other words, can the creditor can sell the debtor’s bedding and give him cheaper bedding in exchange? This way both parties could be satisfied: The creditor would get some money back, while the debtor would still have someplace to lay his head at night. After all, because he is poor, surely cheap bedding is all he deserves—it is what is “fit for him.”
But the Talmud rejects this idea, in a strong statement of the principle of equal dignity. “There is nothing that is unfit for him,” because, as Abaye says, “all Israel are the children of kings.” In biblical terms, this is because all Jews are literally descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were like kings, and so they are entitled to royal luxuries. Rabbi Akiva imagines a case in which a debtor owed 1,000 dinars and owned a cloak worth 10,000 dinars—an enormous sum, meaning the cloak was of the rarest, finest fabric. Can the creditor seize the cloak, sell it, keep the amount he is owed, and return the 9,000 dinars change to the debtor? The answer is no: “It was taught in the name of Rabbi Akiva: All of the Jewish people are fit for that cloak.” A rich man does not have the right to tell a poor man that he should be content with the bare minimum.
In the Talmud, of course, this principle applies only to Jews doing business with other Jews. But the principle of equal dignity has universal implications. In fact, it put me in a mind of a recent New York Times article complaining that too many poor Americans are using food stamps to buy soda. It would probably be best if no one bought soda; but as long as the rich have the right to buy it, they are in no position to stop the poor from doing the same. After all, aren’t we all the children of kings?
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.