Those who work in retail are often compensated with a special employee discount on goods sold in the store. In the days before retail, when the majority of the population worked in agriculture, there was among the Jewish people a special and unique employee discount ordained by the Torah.
“When you come [to work] in your neighbor’s vineyard, then you may eat the grapes you desire until you are satiated, but you shall not put any in your container. When you come [to work] in the ripe grain of your neighbor, then you may pick the grain with your hand, but you may not take a sickle to your neighbor’s grain” (Deuteronomy 23:25-26).
In the Talmud Baba Metzia 87a-b, the rabbis explain that this special provision does not give the employee carte-blanche permission to eat whatever is at hand. This law applies only to that which grows from the earth and only when that fruit is ripe but not yet gathered. In other words, a worker may pluck a ripe grape and eat it, but not take grapes out of the container of gathered fruits that are ready to be brought to owner of the field. Produce that still needs to ripen may not be eaten, and the employee may not take extras to enjoy later. The Talmud notes further that the words, “Then you may eat,” mean that one may not simply suck the juice out of the grape. The words, “Until you are satiated,’ prohibit one from acting glutenously.
The law of the grapevine and grain field reveal the Torah’s fine understanding of the employee-employer dynamic. By seeing to the basic needs of the employees and understanding the natural temptation to taste the fruit, this law does much more that prevent actual theft by employees. It also reminds the owners of the fields that they have an obligation of kindness to their employees.
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