Work in Jewish Thought

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


Rabbi Jacobs’ reading of how the Jewish religious/intellectual tradition values work may be read as a subtle critique of the common practice in contemporary ultra-Orthodox circles for many men to devote the first decades of their adult life to Torah study, to the exclusion of economically productive employment. Reprinted with permission from Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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.

work in judaismNowhere 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.”

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Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.

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