Online Adult Jewish learning

Other Courses in this Series:

Bible 1: Abraham

Bible 2: Isaac

Bible 4: Bible Overview

Bible 5: Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel

Bible Series:

Jacob Works for Laban

Issue: A Jewish Work Ethic


The Torah devotes much attention to Jacob's work as a shepherd, first for Laban and then for his own sheep. These narratives contain valuable lessons about proper work attitudes. In this topic, we will examine four such lessons following the chronology of the Torah narratives:

1) Upon Jacob's arrival in Charan, he confronts a group of local shepherds lingering beside a well. Sforno explains Jacob's reaction to their idleness.

Sforno (Genesis 29:7)

But it is still the middle of the day. It is not yet time to bring the livestock together. Why not water the sheep and go on grazing? - A righteous person protests wrongful behavior even when perpetrated by strangers – with whom he has no connection.

2) The business deals between Jacob and Laban reveal Jacob’s work integrity. After fourteen years of shepherding Laban's flock, Jacob asks Laban to divide the flock so that he can support himself with his own flock. Before negotiating the division, Laban mentions the favorable results of Jacob's past years of work.

Sforno (ibid. 30:27-30)

[Laban said] I have made use of divination and have learned that it is because of you that G-d has blessed me - Using my skills in the art of divination, I have determined that G-d has blessed me on your account.

[You know full well how I worked for you, replied [Jacob,] and how your livestock fared with me. You had very little before I came, but since then it has increased . . . G-d blessed you with my coming - Jacob told Laban, "Do not attribute your increased flock to divination that is based on good luck; rather, attribute it to my hard work, performed with skill and effort in tending the sheep. However, your statement that G-d blessed you upon my arrival is true.

3) In finalizing the deal between them, Jacob assures Laban of his past integrity while shepherding Laban’s flock.

Sforno (ibid. 30:33)

Let my integrity testify for me - When you will inspect the sheep in the portion that is my flock, their number will testify to my integrity in working for you. G-d will increase my share as a reward for my labors.

4) Jacob responds to Laban’s accusations of theft by recounting his extraordinary care and protection of Laban’s flock.

Sforno (ibid. 31:38-41)

Twenty years I worked for you! All that time, your sheep and goats never lost their young. Not once did I ever take a ram from your flocks as food - [You suspect me of theft?] The opposite is what you have seen in my behavior. Not only did I serve you faithfully, but I also benefited you by my efforts to prevent any miscarriages among your sheep. I did not even eat from your flock, as other shepherds allow themselves to do.

I never brought you an animal that had been attacked - I took the blame myself - I compensated you for any sheep that had been mauled due to my negligence; however, I did not assume responsibility for non-preventable accidental deaths. Nevertheless, you unjustly forced me to reimburse you.



Jacob demonstrated a superb work ethic, which he knew to be the reason for G-d's blessings of prosperity.


Several years ago, I spoke with a veteran educator about the opportunities in the field of Jewish education in Israel. What qualities or skills were necessary to successfully enter this field? His response identified the greatest obstacle to successful employment in every field of endeavor: a conscientious work ethic. For numerous reasons, most employees withhold themselves from employing their fullest effort in working.

In emphasizing an employee’s responsibility to his employer, he cited Maimonides’ Code of Jewish law:

Maimonides (Laws of Wages 13:7)

Just as the Torah prohibits an employer from stealing or withholding his worker's wage, so too does the Torah enjoin an employee from stealing from his employer, by remaining idle "here and there," to the point that he cunningly wastes the workday. An employee must be careful with his employer's time.

In addition, an employee must work with all his strength. This requirement is derived from Jacob's statement to his wives: "You know full well that I served your father with all my strength" (Genesis 31:6). G-d rewarded Jacob for his superb work ethic with blessings of fabulous material wealth in this world, as well as great reward in the World-to-Come. The verse supports this: "In this manner (i.e., As a result of Jacob’s work ethic), the man [Jacob] became tremendously wealthy" (Ibid. 30:43).

People present numerous excuses for restraining themselves from utilizing their talents to the fullest. A low salary, "Everyone else does it," and simple laziness are a few of the common spoken and unspoken justifications for slipshod performance in work.

Rabbi Yonah (1180-1263 Spain) identifies three common misconceptions that many people have about employment.

Talmud (Tractate Ethics of the Fathers 1:9)

Shemayah (1st century BCE, Israel) says: Love work, despise lordliness, and avoid the authorities (government).

Rabbi Yonah

Love Work: There are two reasons for Shemayah’s warning against idleness:

1. Idleness leads to lethargy, whereby a person becomes so accustomed to avoiding work that even when he realizes that he needs to work in order to support himself, he cannot move himself to action. King Solomon described the sorry state of the indolent person: The lazy one’s cravings [for items requiring money to purchase] kills him, since he is [so] accustomed to laziness (Proverbs 21:25). Such a person does not fill his needs, since he cannot break his habit of laziness.

2. A person can convince himself that since he is working in order to support himself and thereby engage in the relaxing pursuits of life, he should work lackadaisically. By not exerting himself, he mistakenly thinks that he can benefit from both current relaxation (while on the job) and later vacation (after the job is "completed"). The loafer may enjoy temporary leisure, but will end up working much harder, when he realizes that he did not prepare sufficient means for his support. Idleness does not result in more vacation time, but less.

In contrast, one who utilizes his time wisely, through steady work from the beginning, will benefit from more vacation time. He has established a base of support that allows him to later relax with peace of mind.

Reason #1: While it is clearly acceptable to seek employment in a field of work that attracts one's interest or utilizes one's talents, one must not lose sight of G-d's purpose in obligating man to work: to keep man occupied. In his post-Garden of Eden existence, man requires the regular activity of employment to prevent him from falling into bad ways (see the Isaac course, Lesson Four, Topic Two). Vacation offers a necessary interruption from work so that man can rejuvenate himself and can engage in other activities that he is not be able to do while actively working.

Reason #2: Immediate gratification versus pleasure to be enjoyed at some future date is one of the most common dilemmas of mankind. Should we try to gain all the pleasure we can now, or should we pass up such opportunities in favor of other pleasurable experiences we look forward to at a later date? When this question is applied to the hours one devotes to pursuit of a livelihood, people sometimes reason as follows: Work is supposed to provide for my basic needs so that I may enjoy leisurely activities. If leisure is my goal, then while I am on the job, I should take advantage of any chance for leisure I can.

This line of reasoning is misguided. While a person may indeed succeed in achieving a measure of relaxation at first, in the long run his failure to work diligently and consistently will force him to work harder and longer hours in order to get the job done. King Solomon describes this phenomenon – which occurs in every profession – in agricultural terms:

Because of the cold of winter, the lazy one will not plow [the earth to prepare for planting. Therefore] he will search [for food] in the harvest time and will find nothing (Proverbs 20:4).

King Solomon’s "lazy one" believes that inactivity will result in more inactivity, but the truth is that his inactivity will force him to work more while gaining less – or nothing at all. One who decides to remain indoors during the cold winter season, avoiding his responsibility to prepare for the harvest, deceives himself into thinking that he will be able to continue to live this leisurely routine indefinitely. When the summer season arrives, though, he will starve, since he failed to prepare for the harvest. Had he exerted himself in the winter, he would have been able to harvest a crop that would have supported and sustained him throughout the next year. Steady work will yield more leisure time.

Shemayah's first statement identifies the necessity to work diligently. Attempting to avoid work will lead to an indolent character and, ultimately, more work hours. 

Rabbi Yonah proceeds to explain Shemayah’s second statement.

Despise lordship: Despise arrogance in your work. When considering a job offer, do not convince yourself that certain jobs are beneath your dignity, choosing to remain unemployed. Instead, take the job for its pay.

It is better to sacrifice personal self-importance by taking a demeaning job, than to champion our own honor through remaining unemployed, taking charity from others, and/or living in poverty. Our Sages formulated this message by stating: "Skin animal hides in the marketplace to earn a wage, [instead of remaining idle] claiming, ‘I am a distinguished person.’" (Tractate Pesachim)

Shemayah’s words are addressed to an individual whose ego prevents him from accepting a job he feels is degrading. Obviously one should initially seek work that utilizes one’s talents to the utmost; but along with this one must bear in mind the real reason one works: Work is not an activity intended simply to pamper our egos and lend prestige to our lives; it is a means by which to support ourselves and our families.

Rabbi Yonah concludes by illuminating the third part of Shemayah’s maxim.

Avoid the authorities (government): Shemayah advises against working for the government of a dictatorial monarch (which was the typical form of government in ancient times, and which can be compared to any overbearing employer). Such employment exposes one to religious, to moral and to financial dangers.

Religious/Moral Dangers: By its very nature, working in the service of a dictatorial monarch necessarily interferes with an employee’s religious and moral obligations. Both fear of the king's presence and the necessity to render total service to the king – which requires punctual and efficient work – will eventually lead to an undermining of the employee’s service to G-d. An egotistical ruler who demands strict obedience will inevitably lead a worker to a relaxation of his own moral standards of behavior.

Financial Danger: This statement should be understood in light of another statement found in Ethics of the Fathers: "Beware of rulers, for they befriend someone only for their own benefit; they act friendly when it benefits them, but they do not stand by someone in his time of need." (Ethics of the Fathers 2:3)

One who works for a monarch lives with the constant danger of losing his job, since a king demands unconditional obedience and unfailing success in one’s work. Being selfishly motivated, the king will not hesitate to dismiss an employee and take his wealth, following even a single shortcoming in his service.

Having dealt with the factors of idleness and arrogance that keep people from working, Shemayah concludes with the person who is prepared to work, but chooses the wrong type of employment. As we studied in Lesson Four of the Isaac course (Topic Two), Torah study and an honest occupation constitute G-d's two-point formula for achieving human perfection.

While Torah study educates a person in the knowledge of G-d's standard for moral behavior, gainful employment keeps one productively occupied. In applying this formula, it is axiomatic that the one half of this program, employment, should not contradict the other half, the ethical teachings of the Torah. Working in the service of a dictatorial monarch carries both spiritual and physical dangers. Constant exposure to an egotistical ruler, combined with the necessity for strict obedience to his will, will inevitably lead to a relaxation of one's moral standards of behavior. On a physical level, the rigid demands of a dictator combined with the unconditional obedience due him puts one’s assets at risk of being confiscated, if not endangering his own life.

Jacob's arrival in Charan brought him into contact with his cunning uncle, Laban, and an equally dangerous idolatrous Aramean society. His first encounter with the local shepherds found them standing idly beside a blocked well. The unproductive sight of sheep neither pasturing nor drinking evoked a candid accusation of impropriety. A midrash explores Jacob's inquiry:


But it's still the middle of the day. It is not yet time to bring the livestock together. Why not water the sheep and go on grazing? (Genesis 29:7)

Jacob told them, "If you men are being paid to shepherd other people's sheep, then 'it is still the middle of the day' (Explanation: If you are being paid by the hour, then your present idleness constitutes theft from your employer); Alternatively, if you are shepherding your own sheep, then 'It is not yet time to bring the livestock together'" (Explanation: You are needlessly causing discomfort to your animals - by neither allowing them to pasture nor to drink from the well - and/or wasting your own time.)

To this scenario, Shemayah said: "Love work."

During the twenty years of Jacob's residence in Charan, Laban repeatedly deceived him. Jacob forcefully confronts Laban with this accusation: 

"Twenty years I worked for you! All that time, your sheep and goats never lost their young. Not once did I take a ram from your flocks as food . . . By day I was consumed by the scorching heat, and at night by the frost, when sleep was snatched from my eyes . . . You changed my wage ten times! " (Ibid. 31:38-42)  

Jacob declares that he had not allowed his self-esteem to prevent him from enduring the harshness of searing heat or frigid cold to protect Laban's flock. His commitment to perform the pastoral work that Laban needed did not find him averse to demeaning himself to carry out his work responsibility to Laban.

In supporting Jacob’s claim, Shemayah said, "despise lordliness."

The greatest declaration of Jacob's superb work ethic derives from his moral integrity, even under the most difficult circumstances. A brief survey of the challenges to Jacob’s integrity follows:

1. Laban deceived Jacob by substituting Leah for Rachel. This had cost Jacob an additional seven years of labor. Nevertheless, at the end of Jacob’s twenty years of shepherding Laban’s flocks, Jacob guaranteed him that he had not defrauded Laban in working for him. A midrash confirms Jacob’s honesty: 

"What is the meaning of the redundancy of the verse "He also worked for [Laban] another seven years" (Ibid. 29:30)? It is common for workers to work faithfully for several hours, yet by the end of the day, they slacken their work effort. Here, the verse teaches us that just as Jacob worked faithfully during the initial seven years of labor, so too did he work just as faithfully during the second set of seven years - even though Laban had deceived him by switching Leah for Rachel."

2. After Laban and Jacob contracted to divide the sheep according to the sheep patterns, Laban removed the spotted and streaked sheep, leaving Jacob with what midrash literature describes as "the weak, sick, and barren sheep."

3. To Laban's claim of theft, Jacob reminded him that: "You changed my wages ten times!"

Though circumstances required Jacob to work for an overbearing and dishonest employer, Jacob did not succumb to the pressures to reciprocate Laban’s unethical behavior.

Considering Laban's conniving behavior, why did Jacob persevere in his honest work ethic?

Jacob’s enduring integrity makes sense only if one understands the deeper significance of work. The conversation between Jacob and Laban is illuminating for the view it provides of these two men’s very different attitudes toward work.

As Sforno explains, Laban viewed the material blessing of his flock as an auspicious fortune that happened to come his way in the wake of Jacob’s arrival. From Laban’s behavior towards Jacob, it is clear that Laban carried over this idea of randomness into his own moral life, not obeying a strict moral code or principled work ethic.

Jacob’s response identified G-d as the source of man’s prosperity. Jacob’s outlook led him to adopt a principled work ethic even when dealing with a corrupt employer, such a Laban. The results of Jacob’s recognition of G-d and the reliance on His blessings extended far beyond the sphere of his occupation.

In a broader sense, a good work ethic can even be applied to the labor we do constantly: living. If we see G-d as our employer and good deeds as our assignment, it becomes clear that our work ethic lasts longer than nine to five. Just as we must earn a wage from earthly employers, so too must we earn our ultimate reward through the integrity of our actions during our lifetime. Jacob’s strict adherence to an honest work ethic reflected his outlook on life itself. Jacob’s life was one of devoted service to his true Employer. He prepared himself for this Divine service by being scrupulous and honest in his earthly service. Jacob viewed none of his actions as inconsequential; every job is a training ground for his devotion to G-d.