Banim as Bonim: Does Jewish Tradition Condone Child Labor?
Special to the Jewish Week
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 "Halakhah isn't concerned about child labor."

These words came from the mouth of a rabbi at a panel at YU, on which I was a panelist. Still shocked by his words, I remain glued to the daily news of the Rubashkin trial where Sholom Rubashkin is charged with 83 child labor violations after having been found employing 57 minors. Tears rolled down one child's face as she sat in court a few days ago explaining, "I don't want to remember it," referring to her work at the Postville factory where she was exposed to harsh chemicals. Another child, a 15 year old, recently explained in court that she was de-feathering up to 45 chickens per minute on a 12-hour overnight shift. Their stories and the many others told by the child laborers brought tears to my eyes. We were enjoying kosher meat at the expense of children for years.

Was the rabbi on the panel correct in claiming that the Jewish tradition is not concerned with child labor? On the most basic level, dina d'malchuta dina (obeying the laws of the land) should suffice as a halakhic imperative to ensure that we honor child labor laws. But even further, it seems to me that the welfare of children is at the core of Jewish values. After all, why weren't children under the age of 20 counted in the Israelite census to be included in war? And why does the Pesach haggadah remind us to teach our children about freedom?

The Talmud teaches that the world continues to exist only in the merit of children in school, and that we do not divert schoolchildren from their studies even for the sake of building the Beit HaMikdash (Shabbat 119b). According to the Mishnah, one begins advanced studies at 15, gets married at 18, and does not even begin work until 20 years of age (Pirkei Avot 5:25). While the Gemarrah does acknowledge that at times children did assist their families with projects, in the Jewish philosophy, children belong in only one place: the classroom. They certainly do not belong in a corn field or a meat packing factory!

With the emergence of the concept of worker rights and child rights, the advent of the industrial revolution, and dreams of universal schooling, opposition to child labor was born in America. Under U.S. federal law a minor is defined as any person under the age of 18, and there are strict limits on how many hours a child under 16 can work. Sadly, hundreds of thousands of children are employed as farm workers in the United States today and often work more than 10 hours a day.

Around the world, there are about 158 million children aged 5 to 14 (not including domestic child laborers) stuck in the fields, factories, mines, and in prostitution rings, rather than in school. Child labor currently accounts for 32% of the workforce in Africa. There has, however, been some progress.

According to the World Bank, child labor decreased between 1960 and 2003 from 25 to 10 percent of the total work force. We can significantly change this reality by 2020 by taking action.

Affirmation of children as our greatest blessing must go beyond enrolling Jewish children in day school. It must elevate our conscience to question any business owner and any product that has robbed a child of her right to learn and grow in safety. If our banim (children) are to be bonim (builders) of our world, then we must invest in their spiritual and intellectual capacities - each and every one of them!

Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, a 4th year rabbinical school student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an alum of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, and a 4th year PHD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology.



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Last Update:

11/02/2011 - 06:16
Sholom Rubashkin

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Please think rationally, and about the harm you are causing to a poor family who happen to be Jewish. The story about Maria that you state about abuse at agriprocessors, almost scream out that there was NO abuse, and there is so much exaggeration and misquoting of facts. I realy think that it is greatly unbefitting

To the second comment: You don't know what you are talking about. It doesn't matter if the kids came for work, the fact is they are kids, they should be in school, and they shouldn't be working even in humane situations but especially not in situations like the meat processing factory mentioned in this article. Shmuly is a great man and he absolutely knows what he is talking about. Good for you Shmuly for opposing this ridiculous view that halakha doesn't care about child labor and good for you for publicizing this and writing this article. I hope that child labor will be stopped forever.
The article discusses the halacha (Jewish law) aspect of child labor. Now that Rubashkin has been acquited of child labor violation, doesn't the article seem to violate the halacha against slandering someone else? If the jury heard 5 weeks of testimony and found him innocent, does that maybe mean the author doesn't know all the facts and is accusing Rubashkin of something he didn't do?
It seems to me that dina d'malchuta dina means that halacha would otherwise not have anything to say on the matter; otherwise, halacha would rule the day and there would be no need to appeal to local law. In a country that did not forbid child labor, halacha would not prohibit it. So to argue that because US law forbids child labor, therefore halacha does as well, betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of dina d'malchuta dina. ||| Aside from that, I would echo the second comment on the article. I would add that Shmuly seems to view the world through the prism of the Rubashkin case. Child labor in general does not necessarily equate to child labor at the Rubashkin factory. To the extent that US law forbids child labor, it forbids it even under the most humane conditions. ||| Shmuly also has a tendency to claim he is arguing from halacha when he is in fact arguing from what he perceives to be Jewish values as informed by his tendentious, ideological, and utterly uncompelling reading of cherry-picked verses and Jewish teachings. ||| The position Shmuly has taken with regard to child labor may in fact be a correct one, but a better case could be made for it. (Personally, I think it's dependent entirely on the context.) Shmuly's argument is not altogether different from the argument forwarded by the third commenter: "I feel in my heart that our Creator, the Master of the Universe IS CONCERNED ABOUT CHILD LABOR." With all due respect, that is not argument from halacha, that is argument from nevuah.
'halakhah isn't concern about child labor" What about HaShem? Is he "concerned about child labor?" As a Jewish mother , I am very concerned about child labor!! And I do not care if the child is Jewish or not! I feel in my heart that our Creator , the Master of the Universe IS CONCERNED ABOUT CHILD LABOR. Shabbat Shalom .
Halacha, as well as Hashem, would prefer children work than starve. It is a question of context. You as a mother may be concerned about children around the world working, but unless you will otherwise provide them with sustenance, your is an empty pity, the pity of one who doesn't want to look but is not prepared to do anything. By the way, if Halacha is not against child labor how do you know Hashem is?
This article displays a great deal of ignorance of Jewish learning as well as recent history. It is because of the wealth that we enjoy in mordern times and especially in this great country that we are able to have child labor laws. Our grandparents and great grandparents frequently had to work in their early teens to support themselves and help support their families and it was not considered to be contrary to the Torah. It is also true in the time of the Talmud that a parent was not obligated to support his children at much younger ages than is considered the norm today. I agree that one needs to follow the law of the land under Dina D'Malchusa, and that one is not permitted to violate child labor laws for that reason. But to trot out proofs from the age at which people went to the army is sheer ignorance. There is a more subtle point as well. These children were not kidnapped and forced to work in a meat or chicken processing plant. They came there and voluntarily sought work. The correct thing would have been not to hire them because one must obey the law. What would have happened then with these children? Who was going to provide them with financial support? These issues are much more complex than your foolish knee jerk reactions indicate. I am sure that you are proud of your moral superiority. Maybe you should spend some time in the classroom doing some serious Jewish learning.
A thoughful article. Too bad the author attends a "yeshivat" with controversial credentials as an Orthodox school which may marginalize his credibilty in Orthodoxy.

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