01/28/2014 02:29 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2014

The Sabbath Commandment and the Minimum Wage

JGI/Jamie Grill via Getty Images

The rabbis of the Talmudic era took the Sabbath commandment to set aside time for studying Talmud. Contemporary folks take the Sabbath commandment to liberate us from the stresses and timetables of modern life so that we can seek inner peace, spirituality, harmony with nature, etc. These are nice rationales for the Sabbath commandment. But the Bible offers different rationales. Taking the Bible's rationales seriously has surprising political implications. For example, it may require us to raise the minimum wage.

The Exodus Rationale

The Bible repeats the commandment to refrain from working on the Sabbath 12 times, and lists it among the top Ten Commandments. Obviously, it is one of the most important commandments. But why does the Bible prohibit people from working seven days each week?

The passage containing the Ten Commandments occurs twice in the Bible with just a few differences. The main difference is that Exodus and Deuteronomy give different rationales for the Sabbath commandment. The Exodus rationale is:

...For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it. (Ex 20:11)

Here the idea is that refraining from work has symbolic value. We are to rest in order to imitate God, honor God, and remind ourselves of our covenant with God (Ex 31:12-17). In Exodus, the point of the Sabbath commandment is to renew or enhance our relationship with God.

The Deuteronomy Rationale

Deuteronomy gives a very different rationale. It takes the Sabbath commandment to be about our relationships with other people (and animals). In particular, it is about how we should treat those who work for us.

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God; you shall not do any work -- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt... (Deut 5:13-15)

The passage reminds us that "we" were once exploited, and offers this as an explanation of why we should refrain from exploiting others. We should remember what it is like to labor unceasingly. Remembering this will hopefully make vivid our duty to never inflict that on anyone. Here the emphasis is not on our duty to give ourselves a rest; instead, the Deuteronomy rationale highlights our duty to give other people a rest.

The Sabbath commandment was revolutionary when it was introduced. Addressing people with servants, slaves and beasts of burden, the Sabbath commandment demanded that they allow their workers a weekly vacation day. Since workers in the ancient world worked seven days per week, 52 weeks per year (with rare festival days off), the Sabbath commandment was probably a major blow to the ancient elites. Not only did it reduce the profitability of slaves, it also reduced the psychological gap between rich and poor, for once each week the poor could rest, just like the rich. From the perspective of the ancient workers, the Sabbath commandment provided a huge benefit-package increase.

Implications for Employers in the Modern World

Nowadays, weekends off are taken for granted by most readers of this blog post. So are vacations, sick leave, etc. Does this mean that the Sabbath commandment has become routinely observed, and we can all relax? Not at all. Let me spin a parable/midrash to explain the modern demands of the Sabbath commandment.

A rich man named Ronald didn't want to violate the Sabbath commandment, but he hated to feed his servant, Mashie, for seven days each week while getting only six days of work out of him. Ronald's friend, Donald, felt the same way about his own servant, Niblick. So they agreed that Ronald would employ and feed Mashie for four days each week and Niblick for three days. Donald would do the reverse. That way each servant would work for seven days, but neither Ronald nor Donald would violate the Sabbath commandment.

Unfortunately for Ronald and Donald, God is no fool. When they died, God said to them, "Individually, you observed the letter of the law, but together you violated the Sabbath. Together you shall pay the penalty." Then God sent the pair to be roommates in Gehenna.

For some, ceaseless work is a choice, but many are forced to work two jobs because neither of their employers pay them enough to get by. These workers have no day of rest. Functionally, their employers are acting just like Ronald and Donald. Individually, they are not forcing their employees to work seven days per week. But looking separately at each employer-employee relationship misleads by ignoring the overall context. These employers are collectively violating the Sabbath commandment by paying less than a living wage, thus forcing their employees to work two jobs.

Implications for Voters in the Modern World

The Sabbath commandment requires something even of non-employers. The commandment does not just forbid us to force others to labor unceasingly. It enjoins us to alleviate the plight of people in this situation. We cannot plead that what happens to other people is not our concern just because our own hands are clean. After all, the Bible says,

"Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor." (Lev 19:16)

That is, we have a duty to try to prevent bad things from happening to other people. Thus, we have a duty to reduce the number of people forced to labor without rest, even if they are not our own employees.

How? Well, one step in this direction would be a modest increase in the minimum wage. Some maintain that this would hurt workers by increasing unemployment. This is the sort of objection which is typically raised whenever increased worker benefits are mandated. But there is ample evidence that a reasonable raise in the minimum wage would not reduce the number of available jobs.

Paradoxically, we have more work to do (not on the Sabbath, of course) to ensure that others are able to have a Sabbath.