The Challenges of Justice in a Complex World
He who hires workers and tells them to begin early and finish late cannot force them to it if beginning early and finishing late does not conform to the custom of the place.
Where the custom is that they be fed, he is obligated to feed them; where it is that they be served dessert, he must serve them dessert. Everything goes according to the custom of the place.
One day, Rabbi Johanan ben Mathia said to his son: Go hire some workers. The son included food among the conditions. When he came back, the father said: My son, even if you prepared a meal for them equal to the one King Solomon served, you would not have fulfilled your obligation toward them, for they are descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As long as they have not begun to work, go and specify: You are only entitled to bread and dry vegetables.
Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel said: It was not necessary to say it, for, in all matters, one acts according to the custom of the place.
Doesn’t this go without saying?
If an employer were to pay a higher wage, it would be possible to think that he is saying to the workers: I agreed to pay you a higher salary assuming that you would begin earlier and finish later. Thus, our text teaches us that they can answer him: You have increased our salary so that we work with more care.
But shouldn’t we look at customs? In question is a new city. Shouldn’t one consider where they come from? At issue is a population of diverse origins. And, if you wish, one could say: that is in the case in which he told them he was hiring them according to the law of the Torah.
Rav Zera taught (others say it was Rav Jose): It is written: “You bring on darkness and it is night.” It is this world which is like night; “the night in which all beasts of the forest stir” (Psalm 104:20): those are the evil-doers in this world, who are comparable to the beasts of the forest. “When the sun rises, they go away and hide in their lairs” (Psalm 104: 22). When the sun rises for the just, the evil-doers withdraw to hell, “they go away and hide in their lairs” (it must be read “in their houses”, and it is the just who are spoken of here: there is no just man who does not have a home corresponding to his dignity). “Man then goes out to his work”: the just will receive their reward. “To his labor until evening” (Psalm 104:23): he who knew how to continue his task until evening.
One day, Rabbi Eleazar ben Rabbi Simeon met a government official responsible for catching thieves. He said to him: How can you detect them? Are the not equal to brutes? For it is said: “In it, all the beasts of the night stir.” According to others, it would have been another verse that he interpreted (Psalm 10:9): “He waits in a covert like a lion in his lair; waits to seize the lowly.” And what if you caught a just man and let an evil-doer go? The police official answered: What can I do? It is the order of the king. Then Rabbi Eleazar ben Simeon replied: Come, I will show you how you should proceed. Around four o’clock (ten o’clock), go to the tavern; if you see a wine drinker holding a glass in his hand and dozing, inform yourself. If he is a scholar, he must have risen early to study; if he is a day laborer, he must have gone to work early; if he works the night shift, he could have been making needles. He did not go to work in the daytime but he worked at night; but if he is none of the above, he is a thief and you can arrest him. When this reached the king’s ears, it was said: The reader of the message can serve as the messenger. They looked for Rabbi Eleazar. And the latter arrested thieves. Hence, Rabbi Joshua bar Karhah relayed this to him: Vinegar, son of wine, how much longer will you deliver unto death the people of our God? Rabbi Eleazar conveyed this answer to him: I remove the thorns from the vineyard. The other retorted: Let the owner of the vineyard come and remove the thorns himself.
One day a laundryman met him and called him: Vinegar, son of wine! Rabbi Eleazar said: His insolence is no doubt a sign that he is an evil-doer. He gave the order to arrest him. After having calmed down, he went to set him free but this was no longer possible. He then said about him: (Proverbs 21:23) “He who guards his mouth and tongue guards himself from trouble.” When they hanged him, he stood under the gallows and wept. They then said to him: Master, calm yourself. Right on the Day of Atonement, he and his son had illicit relations with the betrothed of another man. He put his hands on his own body and said: Rejoice, my innards, for if those who seem suspicious to us have come to this point, how much worse are those who case is clear-cut? I am sure that neither worms nor decay will have power over you. But nonetheless he was not reassured. He was given a sleeping draught…