Daf Yomi At Beren: Freedom on the Job and the Treatment of Essential Workers

By: Shayna Herszage Managing Editor  |  March 25, 2021

By Shayna Herszage, Managing Editor

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, essential workers, such as those working in food services, have been placed in positions of significant risk due to frequent exposure. As we hustle about our daily lives with masks on and social distancing precautions taken, it is easy to forget to be considerate of essential workers.

This disregard for essential workers exacerbates the vulnerability of people in such positions. In order to maintain a living, they must often work long hours and have exposure to many people throughout the day, all the while receiving lower pay than people working in similarly high-risk fields such as healthcare. These factors, combined with what is often suboptimal treatment on the part of patrons, place essential workers in the food industry at risk.

The Talmud addresses the importance of kindness toward workers in several tractates. One of these points is raised in a recent page in the Daf Yomi (daily Talmud study) cycle, Pesachim 108a, which states:

“A dilemma was raised before the Sages: What is the halakha with regard to a waiter? Is a waiter obligated to recline? The Gemara answers: Come and hear a solution, as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: A waiter who ate an olive-bulk of matza while reclining has fulfilled his obligation. The Gemara infers: If he ate matza while reclining, yes, he has fulfilled his obligation; if he was not reclining, no, he has not fulfilled the obligation. Learn from this that a waiter requires reclining. The Gemara concludes: Indeed, learn from it that this is the case.” (translation by Sefaria)

This source states that, during a Passover seder meal, a waiter is required to recline while eating just as someone who is not working is required to recline. While this source primarily serves to answer a question about Jewish practices during Passover, it also serves as a reminder of the humanity of food service workers and other people who are often forgotten and ignored. While we are celebrating our freedom, we must also note that others around us, even those working at that moment, are free as well. Similarly, even when we are not “free” of stress during times such as the current pandemic, we must also take into account that those around us are at risk and under stress as well.

On February 12, New York City resumed indoor dining, with social distancing restrictions in place, after a month of indoor dining being banned due to COVID-19. Many have taken this opportunity to return to restaurants or to the Yeshiva University cafeterias once again. However, it is important to keep not only the wellbeing of our socially-distanced peers in mind, but also to keep in mind the wellbeing of food service workers. For example, if a waiter is approaching a table, customers should place their masks on their faces to prevent unnecessary risk of virus exposure. These small gestures help to make such spaces safer for everyone involved. Additionally, customers must remember to be polite to those who are working, even if they are frustrated with new COVID-conscious changes in place. Taking measures to ensure the wellbeing of essential workers and to treat them with proper kindness is the least we all can do as we adjust to the many changes we are experiencing in the world around us.