Q. What does the Talmud mean when it says that whoever acquires a servant acquires a master over himself?
A. The source is Kiddushin 20a. In the literal sense it probably means that an employer is at his/her workers’ mercy. The workers know the business cannot continue without them, and they can be tempted to exploit this fact. That is why Jewish law has strict rules designed to prevent workers taking advantage of their employer. They have to work efficiently and energetically and not waste their employer’s time or money.
But at the same time the employer must not take advantage of an employee. A boss must not behave like a tyrant or bully, believing (and telling the staff) that their and their families’ lives are in his/her hands and they have to accept what he says or else they’re out.
Labour/management issues are central to Jewish ethics. Neither party is permitted to exploit, cheat or undermine the other. The employee must not feel like a slave; nor, in the colourful rabbinic phrase, is it right that the employer has the feeling of having acquired a master. Both parties need each other. They should feel they are partners, crucial (and appreciated) parts of a team.
The question of who pays the wages is not the main issue. Armies need generals; they also need privates. Teams need captains; they also need players. Orchestras need conductors; they also need instrumentalists. Schools need teachers; they also need pupils.
The alpha and omega – or alef and tav – of good labour/management relations is the way they speak to one another. It must always be with respect, propriety and restraint. The Jewish model is Boaz and his reapers in the Book of Ruth; when Boaz came into the field he said, “The Lord be with you”, and they responded, “The Lord bless you” (Ruth 2:4).
As a warning to a boss who speaks to the staff in a high-handed fashion and throws his weight around, Jewish ethics would quote another passage in the Talmud, “Whoever shames his fellow human being in public is as if he has shed his blood” (Bava M’tzia 58b).
In today’s economic climate, when CEOs take away huge salaries whilst retrenching large numbers of staff, there is also a stern warning in the Book of Isaiah, “Woe to those who join house to house” whilst God “looks for righteousness (tz’dakah) and behold, a cry (tz’akah)” (Isa. 5:8,7). A CEO or employer who does not heed the cry of the members of the staff team is like “those who have ears but do not hear” (Psalm 115:6).
The first thing that has to be protected if a business is facing difficulties is the staff. The last thing a CEO should want is a multi-million personal pay packet; as the Yiddish phrase says bluntly, you can’t sleep in two beds at once or eat two meals at the same time. So what if other CEOs are taking out massive salaries? If there is spare money around, the moral thing is to use it for the benefit of the whole staff team.