As one might expect, the institution of Labor Day in the United States coincides with the growth of the labor union movement at the end of the 19th century. The US Department of Labor website reports:
"Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country."
The first Labor Day was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City. Ten thousand workers marched in a parade from City Hall to Union Square. Within a year or two, the celebration of American labor was moved to the first Monday of September and was marked by parades, speeches and picnics for laborers and their families to enjoy a rare day off together.
As this photograph from Labor Day, 1909, documents, there was a core commitment to the labor unions and concern for American workers from within the Jewish community. We are proud to associate with famous American Jewish labor leaders like Samuel Gompers and Rose Schneiderman.
The roots of Jewish activism on behalf of the rights and wellbeing of workers can be found in our two-thousand year-old rabbinic tradition, drawing from the inspiration of the Torah. Specific halachah / Jewish law dating from the first centuries of the common era specify that workers must be paid in a timely fashion and that their conditions must reflect those that are generally acceptable at the time.
"...according to the rabbis, work is essential to personal development and to achieving religious depth and meaning. Through work, humans assume their places in the social order as active agents, like Adam. Work is a pathway to personal health, a conduit to greater understanding of Torah and of faith, and a mechanism through which one ultimately leaves a mark on this world. For a person's work to achieve and maintain this degree of personal and religious meaning."*
Rabbi Peretz's reference to Adam goes back to the passage in Breishit/Genesis in which God informs Adam that he will now be responsible for producing his own food "by the sweat of his brow." From this moment, humanity is transformed from God's "sheltered pets" in Eden to independent, responsible beings, creating and maintaining a social order, a system of justice and equity, developing ever-sophisticated means of producing food, clothing and shelter . . . which engage us to this day.
These are trying times for workers around our country, and in Rhode Island in particular. As so many of our neighbors, friends, colleagues find themselves out of work, our appreciation for work and its significance in our daily private, family and community lives grows.
These insights and appreciation have deep roots in our tradition. Rambam/Maimonides wrote in the Mishneh Torah, a thousand years ago:
"One is at a high level if he is sustained by the efforts of his own hand, a characteristic of the pious of early generations. In this he merits all the honor and good of this world and the world to come, as it is written. "If you eat by the work of your hand, happy are you, and it will go well for you." (Tehillim/Psalms 128:2). Happy are you in this world and it will go well for you in the world to come."
I hope you will join me in a prayer that by Labor Day 2013, everyone in our community will know the deep satisfaction of "eating by the work of their hand . . . "
*"Social Justice and the World of Business," Walking With Justice, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, 2008.