I recall my experiences as a teenager working waiting tables in various restaurants. There was a high-paced energy that was difficult to maintain, but the greatest challenge was constantly being hungry while serving others food. Today, many have it much worse than anything I experienced, because they work long shifts with no breaks at all to eat.
The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (42:14) ruled that we must ensure that the food server also eats from the food being served. The Biur Halachah (169:1) went further, arguing that this rule requires the cook to be fed as well. The Gemara on which these rulings are based (Ketubot 61a) actually went even further than these legal authorities, stating that one must give food to anyone who can smell the food being prepared or served.
We have not lived up to these just rulings. One-fifth of all Americans work in the food sector, from planting and harvesting crops to selling food directly to consumers in fast-food establishments and restaurants, but these 20 million Americans face an absurd dilemma: in addition to the 86 percent who receive low to sub-minimum wages, many are literally not allowed to eat during their workday. Consider the following statistics for food workers compiled by the Food Chain Workers Alliance in 2012:
• 8 percent never receive a 30-minute lunch break
• 22 percent never even receive a 10-minute break that would allow them to eat a snack
• 22 percent at times do not receive a 30-minute lunch break
• 28 percent at times do not receive a 10-minute break
In addition to the injustice involved, it does not make practical sense from a health or morale basis to deprive people of food while they are on the job. For decades, we have known that students who eat breakfast perform better than those who do not, especially in terms of attention span, the ability to concentrate, and IQ scores. For the adult workforce, companies such as Google and Facebook have long provided free meals for their employees, and surveys have noted that offering food to employees on the job has a positive impact on morale and engagement. With all the data supporting the idea that people perform better and are happier if they eat regularly, what purpose can be achieved by depriving people–especially those who work with food–of the ability to take even a minimal lunch break during the workday?
On the night of Passover, we declare, “Kol dichfin yetei v’yeichal; kol ditzrich yetei v’yifsach,” welcoming in all those who are hungry and in need of a Passover meal. This message should not be restricted to our most special of holidays: As we sit in comfort to eat a meal at a restaurant or in our homes, we should think of those whose efforts helped put that food in front of us, and remember that they too must eat. They deserve a right to food for themselves, and ethical, halakhic Judaism protects this right.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."