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Ethics 2: Illness & Healing

Ethics Series:
Getting Along with People

Integrity: At Home & at Work

Issue: A Jewish work ethic

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 crowded field in Israel? His response zeroed in on the greatest obstacle to successful employment in every field of endeavor: a conscientious work ethic. For numerous reasons, whether justified or not, people in the workforce tend to withhold themselves from employing their fullest effort in working. In supporting his position, he cited the following ruling from Maimonides’ Code of Jewish law.

Maimonides (Laws of Wages 13:7)

Just as the Torah prohibits the employer from stealing or withholding his worker's wage, so too is the worker prohibited from stealing from his employer's job, by remaining idle here and there, to the point where he wastes the entire day's work. Rather, the worker must be careful with his employer's time.

In addition, the employee must work with all his strength. We derive this requirement from Jacob's statement to his wives, "You know full well that I served your father with all my strength" (Genesis 31:6). As a reward for Jacob's superb work ethic, G-d blessed him with fabulous material wealth in this world - in addition to his great reward in the World to Come - as it writes "In this manner, the man [Jacob] became tremendously wealthy." (ibid. 30:43)

To be marketable to an employer," he said to me, "you have to demonstrate your willingness to give your best effort at your work." People will find numerous excuses for restraining themselves from utilizing their talents to the fullest. Insufficient pay, "Everyone else does it," and plain laziness are a few of the common spoken and unspoken slogans that are used to justify slipshod performance.

Rabbi Yonah (1180-1263 Spain) analyzes a Talmudic statement that briefly identifies three misconceptions that many people have about employment.

Talmud (Tractate "Ethics of the Fathers," Chapter 1, Mishnah 9)

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

Rabbi Yonah expands on Shemayah’s idea..

Rabbi Yonah

Love Work: There are two reasons for avoiding idleness:

[1] Idleness leads to boredom and craziness;

[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 relaxing on the job he thinks that he will benefit right now. In truth, idleness does not result in more vacation time, but less. Someone who invests his time wisely by putting in the necessary effort from the beginning, will wind up with more vacation time than the loafer. For when the loafer suddenly realizes that he wasted his time in the beginning, he will have to devote himself to a much greater effort in the end.

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 Lesson #5). 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: Current versus future pleasure is one of the most common and vital dilemmas that people experience. Should I have my pleasure now or delay it until later? When this question is applied to one’s work, it is often answered by the following line of reasoning: Work is supposed to make my life more leisurely by providing for my basic needs and giving me the time to pursue my pleasures; thus any leisure I can find on the job I am entitled to take. But this attitude often backfires, leading to an indolence that only forces one to work harder and longer hours to get the job done. The secret to a more relaxed and leisurely life is steady work.


In Shemayah's first statement, he identifies the necessity to work diligently. Attempting to avoid work will lead to an indolent character and, ultimately, having to work more hours. Rabbi Yonah goes on to explain Shemayah’s second statement.

Despise lordliness: One should despise arrogance in his work. When considering a job position, do not convince yourself that certain jobs are beneath your dignity, with the result that you remain unemployed. Instead, take the job for its pay.

Shemayah addresses the individual who recognizes, theoretically, the need for gainful employment, yet his ego prevents him from applying his theoretical knowledge to himself. He simply cannot accept a job that degrades his inflated dignity. Obviously one should seek work that utilizes his talents to the utmost. But along with this must come the realization of the real reason why one works. Work is meant not to pamper our ego and inflate our prestige; it is a means to earn a living for oneself and one’s family. If necessary, the Talmud states, "Skin animal hides in the marketplace to earn a wage, instead of claiming ‘I am a very distinguished person.’" (Tractate Pesachim).


Rabbi Yonah goes on to illuminate the third part of Shemayah’s maxim.

Avoid the government: Working for government is very risky for two reasons:

[1] By its very nature, working in the service of a monarch leads to an interference with his responsibilities to G-d. Both out of fear of the king's presence and the necessity to render total service to the king - which requires large amounts of work - the employee’s service to G-d will eventually be undermined.

[2] This statement should be understood in light of another Talmudic statement: "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, Chapter 2, Mission 3) Working for a monarch carries the constant danger of losing one's job, since the king demands unfailing success in your work. Being selfishly motivated, the king will not hesitate to dismiss you and take your wealth due to even a single shortcoming in your service to him.

Having dealt with the factors of idleness and snobbery that keep one from working, Shemayah now speaks of the person who works, but in the wrong type of job. As we studied in an earlier lesson, Torah study and an honest occupation make up G-d's two-point formula for achieving human perfection. While Torah study trains man to appreciate G-d's standard of moral behavior, gainful employment keeps one healthily occupied.

In applying this formula, it is axiomatic that the one half of this program, employment, should not contradict the other half, the moral 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 own 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.