Desecrating the Kitchen Table/Restoring Its Sanctity

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March 1, 2011
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Richard Litvak

Oshek, to oppress the laborer, is forbidden by the Torah — as it is written: “Lo ta’ashok,” “You shall not oppress a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and he sets his life on it. Else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt.” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15) Rashi interpreted the prohibition of oshek to include agricultural workers. “It is he who risks his nefesh [his soul], climbing up a ladder or hanging from a tree to do his work.”1 Rashi also taught that an olah, the biblically prescribed and sanctified food offering, would be invalid if it was the product of stealing.2 What was being stolen? According to a commentary on Isaiah 61:8, it was the wages of the farm worker.3 In the mid-1940s, Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen, the Chofetz Chaim, moved us from the sacrificial table to the kitchen table when he taught that it is forbidden to make a blessing over stolen food.4 We understand, then, that food, if it is harvested by workers whose wages have been stolen, cannot be sanctified.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the Reform movement affirmed this linkage. Following the 1969 resolution of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) supporting the launch of the United Farm Workers (UFW) grape strike, the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1976 voted to support the UFW campaign to organize farm workers to bargain collectively. They called upon “…all persons of good will to seek out and purchase UFW Black Eagle label grapes and iceberg lettuce…” and to boycott non-union produce.5

Farm workers today still suffer from oshek; they are still oppressed. The average farm worker makes only $10,000 a year.6 They routinely work without bathrooms nearby and with no clean drinking water. Because of these and other dangerous conditions — the demands of stoop labor, the hazards of working with farm machinery, the toll taken by exposure to pesticides and blistering heat — farm work is considered one of the five most dangerous occupations in America.7

Adding to the dire situation of the farm worker is the lack of comprehensive immigration reform. It is estimated that 85 percent of farm workers today are undocumented laborers.8 They are easily oppressed. According to longtime UFW spokesman Marc Grossman, the oppression includes the withholding of wages, the sexual harassment of female farm workers, and the failure to alleviate terrible working conditions, even as employers use the threat of deportation to silence farm workers who try to organize or speak out about the abuse.

Our earliest history teaches us to include the ger, the indwelling noncitizen. “When the stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34) Through resolutions and efforts like GreenTable, JustTable, Uri L’Tzedek’s Tav HaYosher, and Heksher Tzedek, many rabbis and lay leaders have spoken out against the oppression of farm workers and for comprehensive immigration reform. HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, has combined several Jewish community organizations under the banner, “We Were Strangers, Too,” putting much of the Jewish community solidly behind the AgJobs Act, a bill to “improve agricultural job opportunities, benefits, and security for aliens in the United States, and for other purposes.”9 This comprehensive immigration bill has the support of leading national growers, along with that of the UFW and many Democrats and Republicans. It would provide a path to earned legal status that would allow farm workers the security to speak out against any abuses. Despite much support, the bill is being blocked by the anti-immigrant prejudice of many American citizens.10

We must do more than bless the food we eat. We must sanctify it by working harder to stop the exploitation of farm labor; we must work to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

1 Rashi Commentary, M. Rosenbaum and A.M. Silbermann, eds. (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company), p. 119.

2 Ibid, p.2b.

3 Isaiah 61:8. Tanakh: A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures According to the Traditional Hebrew Text (Philadelphia, New York, Jerusalem: The New Jewish Publication Society of America 1988), p.749.

4 Sefer Mishna Berurah, 696:31, Volume 6 (Israel Meir Ha-Cohen, New York, New York, M.M.Y. Zaks, 1946), p.326.

5 Resolution on Farm Workers adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1976.

6 www.nfwm.org, the National Farm Worker’s Ministry website (Farm Worker Conditions).

7 www.nfwm.org.

8 Interview with Marc Grossman, long-time spokesman for the UFW, December 16, 2010.

9 www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h111-2414.

10 www.ufwm.org: The Take Our Jobs campaign, a national campaign of the UFW, offered a farm labor job to any American citizen who wanted one. More than 30,000 people checked out the website and some 8,600 inquired about getting a job. In the end, only eight citizens took a farm labor job. This disproved one widely held prejudicial view that undocumented farm workers take jobs away from American citizens.

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Rabbi Richard Litvak, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Aptos, Calif., has been involved for many years in supporting the United Farm Workers Union.

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