Is There A Jewish Work Ethic?

Work is not a religious obligation in traditional Jewish thought, but it is highly valued.

The verse that springs to mind in any discussion of the Jewish attitude to work is (in the King James version): “Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God; in it thou shalt not do any work” (Exodus 20:9-10). A superficial reading of the verse would suggest that “six days shalt thou labor” and “thou shalt not do any work [on the Sabbath]” are two separate injunctions; one forbidding work on the Sabbath, the other enjoining work on the six days of the week. Such an understanding might be implied in the Rabbinic comment (Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, ch. 21) on the verse: “Just as Israel is commanded to keep the Sabbath, Israel is commanded to work.” This statement occurs, however, in a panegyric on the high value of work and is more a homily than a precise theological doctrine.

Nowhere do we find that it is a mitzvah, a religious obligation, in the formal sense, to work. The whole of this section constitutes the fourth commandment of the Decalogue and deals, according to the tradition, solely with the Sabbath. There is no special benediction to be recited before working, as there is for [the performance of] the other precepts. Furthermore, [thirteenth-century Spanish exegete and kabbalist Moses] Nahmanides understands the verse as supplementary to the command to keep the Sabbath, as if to say: do whatever work is necessary for your maintenance during the six days only and refrain from work on the Sabbath. This, in fact, is the rendering of the New English Bible: “You have six days to labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God, that day you shall not do any work.”

Idleness Is Not Good, but It Is Not a Grave Sin, Either

This textual excursus is far from irrelevant to the theme of Jewish attitudes towards work The verse does imply that it is part of the divine plan for man to work but it would be going beyond the evidence to affirm, on the basis of this verse (as is sometimes done in the Protestant ethic) that to be idle is an offence against the Ten Commandments — although, naturally, idleness is disapproved of by the Jewish moralists as by other moralists. (Incidentally, idleness need not receive unqualified condemnation. It can have its own value as an antidote to an irksome busyness.) In other words, work is a means to an end, not an end in itself. If it were an end in itself, and to work would be to carry out a mitzvah, the workaholic should be admired for his zeal in carrying out the divine will.

Any Honest Living Is Preferable to Charity

For all that, a high value is placed on work in the Jewish ethic. Human dignity is enhanced when man sustains himself by his own efforts. As the Psalmist says: “When thou shalt eat the labor of thine hands, happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee” (Psalms 128:2). In a Talmudic passage (Babylonian Talmud [=BT] Pesahim 113a) it is said that the [third-century] Babylonian teacher, Rav, urged his disciple, Rav Kahana: “Rather skin a carcass for a fee than be supported by charity. Do not say: ‘I am a priest’ or ‘I am a scholar’ so that it is beneath your dignity!”

It has often been noted that the talmudic Rabbis engaged in a variety of occupations (“work” was not necessarily construed by them to mean only manual labor, though some of them were artisans) in order to earn their living. A father is obliged to teach his son a trade or a craft that he be able to earn an honest living, advice being given on the occupations which the father, ideally, should not teach his son to follow because they are degrading or disruptive of character (BT Kiddushin 82ab).

Work Offers Contentment, Constructive Purpose, and Exercise

Another revealing Talmudic homily (BT Pesahim 118a) is in the form of a comment on the verses: “Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in toil shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” (Genesis 3: 17-19). Adam is imagined as being terribly disturbed when he heard that he was to eat the herb of the field, for this would make him no different from his ass whose food is ready to hand. But when Adam heard that he was to toil for his daily bread his mind was set at rest. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” is seen not as a curse but as a reassurance to man, that his dignity will not be compromised in his incessant quest for sustenance, because the human spirit remains discontented unless man earns his keep.

In the Jewish tradition a man’s work has to be beneficial to society. One who earns his living by following an occupation which makes no constructive contribution to the well-being of others is declared by the Rabbis (BT Sanhedrin 24b) to be so unreliable that he is disqualified from acting as a witness in a court of law. Well known is the Talmudic tale (BT Ta’anit 23a) of the saint who saw an old man planting trees. “Why do you plant the trees since you will never enjoy the fruit?” the saint asked, to be given the unanswerable reply (from the Jewish point of view): “I found trees planted by my ancestors from which I enjoyed the fruit. Surely, it is my duty to plant trees that those who come after me might enjoy their fruit.”

In addition to the need to earn a living and to make a contribution to society, man is advised to work for the therapeutic value of physical effort. In the passage quoted above on the verse: “Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work,” the word “all” is stressed, so as to refer also to the man who has no particular work to do. He should still find some work he can do. “If he has a run-down yard or run-down field let him go and occupy himself with them,” or, as we would say, let him do odd jobs about the house, help with the washing-up, take up carpentry, or grow flowers and vegetables.

It is interesting that some form of bodily activity is advocated, not an intellectual pursuit, either because the Rabbis were also thinking of people for whom intellectual pursuits had no attraction or, more plausibly, because, in the absence in Rabbinic times of anything like present-day sporting activities, some physical effort was advocated even for the scholar. “Idleness leads to dullness” is a popular saying quoted by the ancient Rabbis and subsequently by the Jewish moralists, though they would presumably agree with the saying that it is all work and no play that also leads to dullness. Recreational activities were engaged in by Jews throughout the ages.


 Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.


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