April 24, 2014

Do not delay paying your workers!

In this week’s sedra (Lev19:13) we read:
“You shall not oppress your fellow man nor rob him; you shall not let a hired man’s wages abide with you until morning.” In Hebrew that reads: “Lo talin pe’ulat sachir it’cha ad boker.” לא תלין פעולת שכיר אתך עד בוקר

It shall not abide – Rashi: [The word “talin”] is feminine gender and it refers to “wages.”

Rashi makes an important grammatical point. The meaning of the word “talin” is ambiguous. The prefix letter “t” can mean one of two things:

1. You shall not cause to abide (2nd person singular).
Or 2. It (the wages) shall not abide (3rd person singular feminine. The word “wages” is feminine in Hebrew).

Rashi tells us that the correct translation here is choice #2. Note that our translation of the verse above is not according to Rashi, there we used choice #1, as do many translations. But according to Rashi it should read: “You shall not oppress your fellow man nor rob him; the wages of a hired man shall not abide by you until morning.”

But then the question arises. The verse uses the prefix “t” before this to mean “you” (“You shall not oppress, you shall not rob…”). Why does Rashi switch, in mid-verse, the meaning of the “t” prefix from “you” to “it (wages)”?

There are several reasons that forced Rashi to make the choice he did.

If the meaning were “You shall not let the wages abide …” Then the Hebrew should have added the word “et” before the direct object “wages.” In biblical Hebrew the “et” is placed before the direct object, like this: “lo talin et pe’ulat sachir it’cha ad boker.”

The words “You shall not let abide…” imply intentionality, that is, you shall not keep the hired man’s wages until morning (on purpose). But if that were the correct meaning, then the word “it’cha” – “with you” is redundant. Where else would you keep it, if not “with you”?! It would have been more appropriate to simply say: “lo talin et pe’ulat sachir ad boker.” The addition of the word “with you” implies that you left it with you by accident or due to forgetfulness.

Conceptually we must say that the prohibition is against unintentional and inconsiderate forgetting to pay your workers’ wages on time but not against intentionally withholding wages. If it were intentional it would be identical with the first prohibition in this verse of “lo ta’ashok et rei’echa” in this verse which Rashi himself tells us means “do not withhold wages of a hired man.”

For these reasons Rashi chose to interpret the words “lo talin” as he did.

But if the prohibition is against unintentional forgetting then we have a question. How can the Torah prohibit an unintentional act? By definition, the person did not do the transgression on purpose, so how can it be prohibited and if transgressed, why should the person be punished?

This is precisely the point. The Torah makes us aware of the eventuality of forgetting to pay a workman on time. By making a person culpable for such inconsiderate forgetting, the Torah increases the chance that the person will be more considerate and less forgetful. Like accidental homicide. This too is probably the reason this prohibition is included in Parshat Kedoshim, as Rashi said at the beginning of the Parsha: “be far removed from transgression.”

Shabbat shalom and a guten summer!

Rabbi Meir Wise


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