Work in Jewish Thought

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

Print this page Print this page

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."

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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs

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.