By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
The headlines read that Jay Leno, the late-night comedian, took a fifteen million dollar pay cut in order to save the jobs of his staff members. Actually, there were about 20 to 25 staff members of the Tonight Show that were let go. Leno took the pay cut in order to stop further staff reductions. Clearly, the move demonstrates Leno’s commitment and loyalty to his staff members and fellow workers.
The question is, what does Jewish law have to say about the matter? Was what Jay Leno did a voluntary Mitzvah, a halachic obligation, or perhaps not even a Mitzvah?
About four and a half centuries ago, the Maharam Padua, at great personal expense printed the Rambam’s Mishna Torah. A gentile printer, in an attempt to stifle competition, wished to damage the Maharam Padua financially and decided to print the Rambam’s Mishna Torah as well, and to undercut the Maharam Padua’s price. Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the Remah, dealt with the issue in a responsa (#10), and prohibited the purchase of the gentile printed Mishna Torah. He writes, “And do not say that it is only in that case (an interest loan referred to in Bava Metzia 71a), where he does not lose his own funds, but merely does not make a profit.. For there is explicit proof otherwise in tractate Avodah Zarah (20a).. The same is true in our case where each man is obligated to establish the hand of his peer.
The Tashbatz (Vol. III #151) also writes about the obligation to purchase from a fellow peer rather than someone else even when there is a price difference.
These sources, of course, have to do with purchases. But do we see any authority extending this principle to issues of employment? The answer is yes.
Rabbi Ben Tzion Meir Hai Uziel (1880-1953), the first Sefardic Chief Rabbi of Israel writes (Piskei Uziel She’elot HaZman 48), “In regard to employment of peers there is not just an obligation of charity – rather there is a brotherly national obligation.. This Mitzvah extends to purchases, employment and matters of business.”
It seems from this Remah and from the Chief Rabbi that the issue is an obligatory one, even when there is a significant loss involved. Not all poskim agree with this position, however. Indeed, it seems that the majority position may be otherwise. The Chsam Sofer (Kovetz Teshuvos 46), the Maharsham (Mishpat Shalom 189) and the Shaar HaMishpat (97:1), and Dayan Weiss (Minchas Yitzchok 3:129) all seem to write that when there is a significant amount of money involved there is no obligation.
We do find precedent in the Talmud (Gittin 56a) for providing economic assistance during difficult financial times. The wealthy people of Jerusalem did so during the Second Temple period of destruction. They shared their incomes. Rav Yaakov Epstein in Chevel Nachalaso (2:67) suggests that there is no obligation, of course, when there is a danger that the business will not survive economically. Indeed, it would seem to this author that in such a case it would not even be considered a Mitzvah at all, when there is a strong likelihood of taking one’s own business down. The Gemorah in Bava Metzia (62a), in fact, understands the verse in VaYikrah (25:36) that states, “And your brother shall live with you” on the emphasis on the last word – with you. Your existence has precedence.
The conclusion? Leno’s move was certainly a Mitzvah. Rav Uziel would hold it is an obligatory Mitzvah, and so might the Remah, if the extension between purchasing and employment is valid. Others would hold that it is not an obligation, but certainly meritorious. If, there is a strong danger of the entire operation closing then it may not even be a Mitzvah.
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