Labor Day

Labor Day is a time when people say, “The summer’s over. We have to go back to our schedules.” And so Labor Day is something that a lot of people dread. Labor Day is also a nice weekend for people, so for other people it’s something that they like and look forward to. But just about no one really thinks about what Labor Day means. What I’d like to do tonight, and what I’d like to do next Friday night, is to take the idea of Labor Day seriously and to talk about Judaism and the concept of labor and of respecting those who labor for us. The Talmud teaches that a Jewish person should say one hundred blessings a day. Many of the blessings that we say are simple and short, a blessing over a piece of fruit, or a cup of tea, or a sandwich. The formula is simple, “Blessed are you, O Lord our G-d, source of life, Who creates the fruit of the tree,” or “By Whose word all comes into being,” or “Who brings forth bread from the earth.”

But what is the point of these blessings? Why do we say them?

The Talmud records a fascinating discussion on exactly that question. After a debate in which the rabbi’s attempt and fail to find a basis in the Bible for saying a blessing before one eats we find this teaching.

Rabbi Judas said in the name of Samuel, “Whoever has enjoyment of something from this world without saying a blessing, it is as if he had improper enjoyment of things sacred to heaven.” Rabbi Hanina bar Pappa said, “Whoever has enjoyment from this world without saying a blessing, it is as if he has robbed G-d and the community.”

According to this text, what is a blessing over food? It is an acknowledgement of the ultimate source of that food, of the one who made the earth, who created the tree, who makes all things. This acknowledgement allows us to make use of something which would otherwise be off-limits to us. Eating something without acknowledging its source is, therefore, tantamount to stealing from G-d. But why does Rabbi Hanina add that it is also like stealing from the community?

Rabbi Hanina seems to understand that the act of blessing is not only acknowledging the Divine source of that which we consume, but the human source as well. To consume without acknowledging the people who have helped to bring a particular item to our table is to steal from them and from the community at large, just as it is stealing from G-d when we fail to acknowledge the ultimate source of all things. While the traditional food blessings do not explicitly refer to human labor, Rabbi Hanina infers the human dimension of the act of blessing.

In this understanding, saying a blessing is an opportunity for a particular kind of awareness. If I were really to think about all that it has taken to bring a plate of vegetables to my table, all the natural elements of sun and earth and rain, and all the human elements of planting and harvesting and transporting and selling, as well as the G-dly power that underlies the whole process, I would feel a profound connection every time I sat down to eat. I would have a better realization of the many ways that my life is intertwined with people all over the planet, the people who farm my food, and make my clothes, who assemble my computer, and build my home. At the same time somewhere else on the globe there may be someone saying a blessing over the product of the work of my hands.

Jewish tradition affirms in more explicit ways that human labor is sacred and essential. In Jewish law a forge (?) offers many protections. But there was no need for a Labor Day and a time of the Torah in Talmud, for in those days the work that it took to sustain a community was far more visible to all those who shared the fruits. The farmer, the shoemaker, the butcher, the teacher, the seamstress, all were community members and were known to one another. In our modern global economy work and workers are hidden from us as consumers. As workers we are isolated from one another. The act of blessing in this context is a way of making the invisible visible, and a way of reconnecting ourselves both to G-d and to a human community that make our existence possible. Labor Day is, like the traditional food blessings, also a way to remind ourselves not to steal from others in the human community. As consumers or stockholders, we are also pitted against workers. If wages go up, then so do prices. If workers are laid off, it’s good for Wall Street. But ultimately we are just stealing from ourselves, whether we consider ourselves workers or not. To understand the meaning of blessing is to understand that my well-being is dependent, ultimately, on the well-being of all workers, that is, on all residents of the planet. Acknowledging my dependence on the labor of others also means acknowledging those laborers’ rights, to a decent wage, to safe and sanitary working conditions, to dignity and the right to organize.

And so, perhaps, Labor Day can be the occasion, as we pick up something to eat, or we shop at the Labor Day sale, to stop for a moment and think about how this particular item arrived in our hands. Who worked the soil and the machinery that produced this? Was it a small farmer or a factory worker or a migrant laborer or a child sweat shop? And what conditions did that person work and how much were they paid? How did this food item get from the farm to the store, and who were the people who handled it along the way, the packers, the truckers, the stock person at the supermarket? How did the shirt arrive on my shelf and who were the people who helped it get there? What are their lives and their work like?

And finally, what is the blessing I can say and what are the actions that I can take to honor each of these people, and in so doing to give proper due to both the Creator and the community of which we are all a part?