The Obligation to Work
We live in a world where no truth can be taken for granted. It is difficult for me to imagine that the premise of this article would even need to be discussed in any prior generation, let alone bear the status of an “underdog” opinion. Nevertheless, the notion that it is an obligation for Jewish males to support themselves and those dependent on them has become so unpopular that in many circles those who work for a living are looked down upon as Jews who do not fear heaven.
In the absence of prophets, Hashem speaks to us in two ways: through His Torah and through His handiwork. Indeed, the very nature of the world that Hashem created reflects the necessity for Man to work. If it were true that the “ideal” lifestyle is to completely immerse oneself in Torah study, then a critical mass of people attaining this ideal lifestyle would spell the death of the human race. It is inconceivable that the ideal state of existence in this world is not self-sustaining without nature-defying miracles. (This is one of the great refutations of the Christian sects that promote celibacy as the holiest lifestyle.) Consequently, the nature of Hashem’s handiwork dictates the necessity to work as a component of the ideal and intended lifestyle.
The physical frailty of the human being also indicates that Hashem intended for Man to work. After all, the primary motivation for most people to work is to pay their bills, to be able to provide the basic physical necessities. Fortunate is the individual who derives personal and spiritual gratification from his occupation in addition to his paycheck. Were Man created in such a way that he did not require constant expenditures on physical needs, the average person would have little interest in working – and thereby the world would grind to a halt. It is only because of our physical needs and interdependence on one another for survival that society functions and can progress.
This is a key point that is often neglected by those who argue in favor of working. Although Hashem indeed made it necessary for people to work in order to survive, the reasons to work do not end at survival. After all, the need for survival is merely the mechanism by which Hashem compels people to work. But there is a deeper purpose to working that transcends one’s selfish needs: contributing to yishuv ha’olam, the needs and development of society, or, more simply, to make the world go ’round.
When viewed in this light, whether one is a world-class surgeon or a truck driver, he fulfills the will of Hashem through his worldly labor. The world needs a healthy supply of manpower and talent in all occupations, and the Jewish people should be amply represented – in fact, should serve as role models for their colleagues.
Of course, Hashem expects one to properly balance his physical pursuits with spiritual pursuits. The proper balance will vary from person to person, but it is not a mainstream Jewish lifestyle to be engaged exclusively in the physical or the spiritual, nor is involvement in the physical world to be denigrated as “less than ideal”. It is in the physical realm that one’s achievements in the spiritual realm are brought to life and have the greatest impact on civilization.
While there is certainly no shortage of Torah sources that admonish us not to place primary importance on the physical world, which is temporary, there is also a wealth of Torah sources that emphasize the importance of working and supporting oneself.
In Parshas Noach the dove returned to the ark with an olive branch to indicate that it is preferable to subsist on a bitter sustenance that nevertheless comes directly from Hashem (through one’s own work being blessed) than to subsist on handouts (Sanhedrin 108B). The Maharsha notes that we in fact pray for this regularly in Bircas Hamazon: “Please, Hashem our God, don’t cause us to be dependent on the gifts of people nor even their loans, but on Your full, open hand…in order that we not be humiliated.”
Indeed, subsisting on charity is consistently portrayed in Torah literature as the harshest of fates, certainly not a fate that should be pursued. “A poor man is considered like a dead man.” (Nedarim 64B) “Make your Shabbos profane (by not honoring the day with special food) rather than make yourself dependent on others.” (Shabbos 118A)
Our parents and grandparents understood and appreciated the degradation of accepting a handout, let alone asking for one. Many of them scraped by week after week, yet continued to work all kinds of unglamorous jobs with pride and determination to support themselves and their families. Accept charity? Over their dead bodies.
Nowadays, however, it has become fashionable to snub supporting oneself as being beneath a true Torah Jew, and prominent rabbis regularly “endorse” charitable “causes” that our ancestors would scoff at. Their determination, work ethic, pride, and keen sense of priorities are largely absent in our generation. The ideal is now portrayed as someone who is “completely immersed” in Torah study to the exclusion of all worldly interest and involvement.
In Torah literature, however, supporting oneself through the labor of one’s hands, relying only on Hashem for one’s sustenance is portrayed as the ideal. Working for a living – and in fact working as a contribution to society and personal development – is consistently spoken of in the highest of terms. In fact, an entire chapter of Pirkei Avos D’Rabbi Nasan, chapter 22, has been dedicated just to drive home this point, filled with statements by many of the most prominent authors of the Mishna. A selection:
“Shemaya said, ‘One is obligated to love work and to engage in work.”
“Rabbi Eliezer said, ‘Work is great, for just as the Jews were commanded regarding Shabbos, so were they commanded regarding work, as it says ‘Six days you shall work and do all of your work.’”
“Rebbe said, ‘Work is great, for people speak negatively about all those who don’t work. From where does he eat? From where does he drink?”
“Rebbe further said, ‘Work is great, for those who are engaged in work always have some money on hand.”
“Rabbi Yosi said, ‘Work is great, for anyone who is not engaged in work is responsible for his own death. How so? Through idleness he will run out of money for food and may come to misappropriate money belonging to hekdesh.” (In modern times, one may be drawn to other forbidden behaviors to raise money.)
“Rabbi Eliezer said, ‘Work is great, for one who benefits the value of even one peruta from hekdesh is a transgressor, yet laborers in the Bais Hamikdash receive their wages from hekdesh.”
“Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya said, ‘Work is great, for every tradesman takes pride in his trade. He goes out with his uniform or instrument and takes pride in his trade. Even Hashem called attention to His own work…”
“They further said, work is great, for even if one has a dilapidated courtyard or garden, he should go and involve himself with them so that he should be involved in work.”
These sources sing the praises of working, as a source of livelihood, as a source of personal gratification, as a protection from sin brought about by self-imposed poverty, and, without question, as a mandate from Hashem. And they are referring to skilled labor or physical labor, not Torah study. Torah study is a companion to work, not a substitute.
The Pnei Yehoshua notes an apparent contradiction between a comment of Rashi in Bava Kama 100A and another in Bava Metzia 30B. In one place Rashi interprets “the house of one’s life” as the study of Torah, whereas in the other place he interprets it as learning a trade through which to support oneself. The Pnei Yeshoshua explains that these are two sides of the same coin; Moshe was informing the Jews that with their study of Torah they should not neglect to acquire a trade. This is in line with the teaching in Pirkei Avos (2:2) that Torah that is not accompanied by “the way of the land” (meaning working) is destined to fail. Acquiring a trade is the primary “life” of Torah study. So writes the Pnei Yehosua. (Bava Kama 100A)
The Medrash Rabba comments on Koheles 9:9 that the Pious of Jerusalem earned that distinction by working in the winter and learning Torah in the summer. (This is quoted by the Ran in Brachos 9B.) Others have it that they divided their days into thirds, one part each for prayer, Torah study, and working.
In the Rambam’s hierarchy of charity, the highest level is making the poor person self-reliant so that he no longer needs charity. Suggestions include offering him a job, teaching him a trade, or giving him a free loan to further a business enterprise.
My father once offered a job to a young man who was shnorring money during morning prayers. (He was one of those professional, enterprising shnorrers who come from out of town in a van full of shnorrers to collect in various shuls. I sometimes wonder how one gets one of these limited spots in what is surely a competitive new industry.) The young man scoffed at my father’s offer, claiming he makes more money collecting – this, from someone with no education and no discernable skills. Nowadays subsisting indefinitely on charity is not a last option that is painfully resorted to, but a business decision, if not a dream for those who are fortunate enough to merit it. The Rambam is turning over in his grave.
There is a mitzvah to help someone load his animal with merchandise that has fallen off. The Torah qualifies this mitzvah by applying it only to situations in which the owner of the animal participates in loading the animal (assuming he is physically able to do so). However, if the owner crosses his legs, sips some lemonade, and tells you to do a mitzvah and work on his behalf, there is no obligation to help him. One who performs work for this person, who expects others to do more for him than he is prepared to do for himself, is known as a sucker.
It is true that there is a tradition of wealthy businessmen making private arrangements to support outstanding Torah scholars in exchange for a share in the mitzvah. However, there is no precedent for the welfare communities, the widespread intentional impoverishment that we are witnessing today. This brings neither glory to the Torah nor Torah scholarship to the Jewish people. While Chazal emphasize maximizing one’s time to learn and encourage certain individuals to make a career of learning and teaching, this never was and was never meant to be popularized for the masses. Chazal themselves emulated their own model of supporting themselves, and who is to say they are greater and deserve more?
The great luminary Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch summed it up best: “But as help and support for necessitous poverty is ensured under the regime of Jewish Torah law, Zedaka does not shame the recipient who requires it. Yea in the spirit of this law, one who is unable to work, or is out of employment, or, out of misplaced pride, goes short himself, or makes his family go short in the necessities of life rather than to resort to Zedaka to which he is entitled is taking a grave responsibility on himself – it is as though he is spilling blood (Yerushalmi at the end of Pe’ah).
“But just this law lays very great value on retaining self-independence, on restricting oneself to the bare necessities of life, on taking on what in the eyes of the thoughtless world is looked down on as the very lowest work to avoid having to recourse to charity. Nowhere in the world is honest work to gain an independent living held in such high esteem and honor as was the case in ancient Jewish circles. Our greatest spiritual heroes, whose light still illuminates us, and to whom their age and all ages looked up to, and still look up to full of respect and honor, a Hillel, a Rebbi Yehoshua, a R. Chanina and R. Auchio, a R. Huna all lived in the most straightened circumstances and earned their living as a woodchopper, cobbler, porter, drawer of water, and by their example taught the maxim, ‘live no better on Sabbath than on the rest of the week, and be independent’; ‘skin carcasses in the open market and get paid, and do not say ‘I am a priest, am a learned man, such work is beneath me.’’
“At the end of Pea, the Mishna says: ‘He who does not really require Zedaka and still takes it, will not be allowed to leave this world without having to resort to charity out of dire necessity. But he who really could be entitled to take charity but manages to live without doing so will not leave this world in his old age without having supported others out of his own fortune.’” (Hirsch Commentary on the Torah, Judaica Press edition, Devarim page 275).
These powerful words are a stinging rebuke to our generation. If the comprehensive words of our Sages are not enough to cause us to rethink the proper balancing of our priorities, an increasingly grim reality eventually will. If the many thousands of able-bodied Jewish men who decline to contribute to the economy, decided to support themselves while still devoting themselves to Torah study, countless millions of tzedaka dollars would become available – perhaps even to the extent that providing a solid Jewish education to all of our children could become readily affordable. Is this not a more appropriate use of our resources? Would this not build a better foundation for the future?
We can dismiss the exhortations of Chazal and rationalize the status quo, or we can make important changes before change is thrust upon us against our will. The choice is ours.
Rabbi Chananya Weissman is the founder of EndTheMadness (www.endthemadness.org). His collection of original divrei Torah, "Sefer Keser Chananya," can be obtained by contacting him at firstname.lastname@example.org