כ״ה בטבת ה׳תשע״ח (January 12, 2018)

Shevuot 45a-b: The Sages Defend Workers’ Rights

As we learned on yesterday’s daf of the Mishna established oaths that would allow certain plaintiffs to take an oath and to collect money that is owed to them. Among the cases mentioned in the Mishna are a nigzal and neḥbal – someone who was the victim of theft or of violence that led to damage – as well as cases of a worker who claims wages that are due to him.

The Gemara chooses to ask why this arrangement was made for a worker. Apparently the Gemara does not ask about cases of nigzal or neḥbal since in those cases we can well understand that the defendant is considered to be potentially unreliable, so the only one we can turn to for a reliable oath is the plaintiff. In the case of a worker and his employer, there is no reason to suspect that one is more reliable than the other, so why should we trust the oath of the worker rather than demand an oath from the employer that would free him of his obligation to pay? Such an oath would parallel the Biblical oaths that always free the defendant from paying!

The first response of the Gemara is that this oath was instituted because the worker needs these wages in order to survive. In response to the challenge of the Gemara that the employer should not be punished out of concern for the needs of workers, the Gemara concludes that the oath is given to the worker since the employer is so overwhelmed with the responsibilities of his business and his workers that we assume that the worker is more likely to remember whether or not he was paid.

Although the Gemara introduces this second reason with the word ela – “rather” – which usually indicates that the first reason is rejected and is replaced with the second reason, in this case many rishonim, including Rabbeinu Ḥananel, the Ri”f and the Ramban, view the two explanations as complementary. Thus, the establishment of an oath in the case of a dispute over wages was instituted because of the Sages concern for the livelihood of the worker; the reason that it was given to the worker rather than to the employer was because the Sages understood that the employer was less likely to remember since he was so busy tending to the affairs of his business.