Work as a Jewish Spiritual Practice

Texts that address the issue of Jewish work.

Torah in a Cave

For criticizing the Roman government, the [first century] sage Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai was sentenced to death. He fled with his son to a cave. The following was told:

A miracle occurred–a carob tree and a well were created for them. They would remove their garments and sit up to their necks in sand, and study the entire day. When it was time for prayer, they put on their garments, wrapped themselves in their prayer shawls, and prayed. Afterward, they again removed their garments, so that [the garments] would not wear out.

They dwelled 12 years in the cave. Then the prophet Elijah came and, standing at the entrance to the cave, announced, ‘Who will inform the son of Yohai that Caesar is dead and his decree is annulled?’ So they went out, and, seeing people plowing and sowing, Rabbi Simeon exclaimed, ‘These people forsake life eternal and engage in life temporal!’ Whatever they cast their eyes upon was immediately incinerated. At that, a divine voice went forth and said, ‘Have you come out to destroy My world? Return to your cave!'” (Babylonian Talmud , Shabbat 33b-34a).

The story teaches that the ordinary work of the world is of higher value even when compared to devotion to Torah. While a few exceptional individuals may live in a “cave” or pursue lives of holiness, most people need to work in the real world. It is in that real world that Torah is challenged as we try to live up to its precepts of honesty and fair dealings.

‘Know God In All Your Ways’

A contrasting story:

Rabbi Yitzhak of Vorki [Poland, 1779-1848] told of how once he was together with his master, Rabbi David of Lelov, at sunrise. The Rebbe [i.e., Rabbi David; “Rebbe” refers to a venerated rabbi, especially among Hasidim] was enrobed in a tallit [prayer shawl] and crowned in tefillin, ready to pray the Morning Prayer, when a gentile came in, pounded on the table and asked that he sell him a quantity of liquor. [His home was also an inn.]

There was no one else in the house then to sell it to him, so the Rebbe himself went with alacrity, measured it out himself, and put it before the man. [When asked about why he left his prayer preparation to do business,] the Rebbe explained to him softly, ‘Listen to me, my sweet friend. My path in the service of God is ‘Know God in all your ways’ [Proverbs 3:6 ]… So when I went to measure out the liquor, my whole intention was to fulfill the Torah’s mitzvah [commandment] about honest measures and to give pleasure to God by this; and that is why I happily ran to do it with such haste. (Kodesh Hillulim [a 1949 biography of Rabbi David of Lelov], 150-151).

Piety in Business

“‘I shall walk before the Lord in the land of the living’ (Psalm 116:9). Rav Yehudah said: That means the marketplaces’ (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 71a).

‘Rav Yehudah said: A person who wishes to be pious must fulfill the laws of the tractates of Nezikin [the section of Talmud dealing with business laws] (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma 30a).

“True piety is determined by one’s attitude toward money, for only one who is reliable in money matters can be considered pious” (Zevi Hirsch Koidonover [Poland and Germany, 17th-early 18th century], Kav Ha-yashar).

Reprinted with permission from A Book of Life (Schocken Books).

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