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Shabbat Parashat Bamidbar 5779

P'ninat Mishpat: Waiving Workers Benefits

(based on appeal ruling 75118 of the Eretz Hemdah-Gazit Rabbinical Courts)

Case: The plaintiff (=pl) served as a rosh kollel for the defendant (=def), an organization. For several years, def paid pl with a kollel stipend rather than a worker’s salary with a wage stub and social benefits. Then, def started paying pl, based on pl’s request, as a worker. Pl, who quit a year later, now demands to have his social benefits rights restored retroactively. Def argues that pl was indeed a kollel student, who received a higher than normal stipend because he also did some teaching. Def also argues that pl agreed to the conditions, which are totally standard for roshei kollel in Israel.

 

Summary of Initial Ruling: According to Israeli law, one cannot relinquish “cogent rights,” including a worker’s minimum social benefits. Standard court rulings posit that whether one’s “pay” is to be considered a stipend or wages is not determined by agreement but by the nature of the relationship. These rulings should be understood as the basis for such questions. Relevant in this case is that pl provided a crucial service for the kollel and that def made demands of pl that are appropriate for a worker rather than a kollel fellow.

A worker can relinquish rights when they are based on common practice, but not when they are based on the law of the land. In truth, some poskim enable agreement to overcome the law in matters of employment, claiming that the law is based on “values that are foreign to the Torah,” rather than improvement of society. Also, some argue that since agreement overcomes Torah law in monetary matters, it certainly overcomes rights given by the law of the land. However, beit din followed the approach that basic workers’ rights are not just a matter that impacts individuals but the face of the workplace, making the law of the land viable. Based on the principles, beit din awarded pension contributions, severance pay, and recreation pay, and required def to retroactively provide wage stubs.

 

Appeal: If we follow the law of the land even when it is not common practice, beit din is no different than secular courts. In the realm of Torah institutions, the determinants of who is a worker do not apply, and general judicial precedent is thus irrelevant. Pl worked elsewhere and also did personal learning in his first years in the kollel, so that at least some of his pay should be a stipend.

 

Appeal Ruling: The beit din ruling is based on the Rashba and the Rama (Choshen Mishpat 369:11) that the laws of the land apply to laws done to improve society as a whole. According to this, matters of the public, including the protection of workers, who are the “weaker” members of society, exceed personal interests. When such laws begin, they are usually against common practice, but over time, as in this case, they become generally accepted by society. Therefore, in this case, the law is valid halachically. Use of the legal precedent just helps understand the law’s intention. It is not true that roshei kollel, as a rule, are not paid as workers.

 Had pl accepted the pay offer without benefits with the intention to later sue, he would have been acting in bad faith and his claims should be dismissed. But there was no claim that this occurred. It does not make sense to break pl’s wages into a stipend part and a work part, as all was part of one set of responsibilities.  
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