Avodah: Vocation, Calling, Service

More than just means to make money, our jobs can be one vehicle for setting the world right.

Print this page Print this page

"'Well, you see, I'm a religious man,' he answered, 'and my work is part of my religious mission.'

"'What do you mean?' I asked.

"'Well, its like this. Moving is hard for most people. It's a very vulnerable time for them. People are nervous about going to a new community, and about having strangers pack their most precious possessions. So, I think God wants me to treat my customers with love and to make them feel that I care about their things and their life. God wants me to help make their changes go smoothly. If I can be happy about it, maybe they can be, too'" (Jeffrey Salkin, Being God's Partner).

Work & Competing Values

Seeing the value in work only heightens the question of how to balance the demands and challenges of work with the rest of our lives--our family, friends, etc. For the rabbis [of classical Talmudic Judaism] the question was different: how to balance Torah/Judaism and work. If, after all, the highest Jewish value is Torah study, which is a lifelong occupation, then shouldn't we minimize our time at work? For the rabbis, the question was how much work to fit into a life a Torah, while for us the question is how much life to fit into a world of work? Yet despite their love of Torah, work occupied a central place in the rabbis' lives.

Rabbi Zakok taught, "Do not make the Torah a spade wherewith to 'dig' [i.e., make a living]" (Mishnah Avot 4:7). Each of the Talmudic rabbis had real jobs, none of them made their livings as rabbis. They understood that the success of the Torah depended upon putting its ideals to work in "real" life. The tradition is only worthwhile if it works during the week, not just on Shabbat.

"Rava [a Babylonian Talmudic sage] said: When they escort people to their Heavenly tribunal after their death, the tribunal asks: 'Did you conduct your business transactions faithfully?' [Only then are you asked:] 'Did you set aside fixed times for Torah study?'" (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a),

Today we often think of religion as that which takes place in the synagogue or within the realm of ritual. Religion in America can be consigned to the leisure-time activities, allocated to the Sabbath. Instead we are taught the following:

"Joshua said: If people recite two halakhot [Jewish laws] in the morning and two halakhot in the evening, and the rest of the day is occupied with their work, it is imputed to them as though they [meditated upon it day and night, and thus] fulfilled the entire Torah, all of it."

"'Thou shall meditate therein day and night' (Joshua 1:8) [a precept that is impossible to fulfill]. Hence Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai said: Only to people who ate manna [whom God provided sustenance] was the Torah given to study intensely, since such people had no need to engage in craft or business. Otherwise, could a person sit and study Torah, not knowing where their food and drink would come from or where they would get their clothes or coverings?" (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Beshallah, Va-yassa' 3).

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

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.