Jewish sources emphasize two basic work values. The first value can be framed negatively, and that is to avoid being a financial drain on society, so that the community can focus its charity on people in real need, the ones who have no other choice. The second value, and more significant to the Rabbis, can be framed positively, and that is for a person to be a contributing member of society and to participate in making the world a better place.
The early Rabbinic sources are especially sharp regarding the importance of work. A few examples: “Anyone who learns Scripture, Mishnah and has a worldly occupation (this is the meaning of derekh eretz in most Talmudic texts) will not easily sin… but anyone who has no part in the learning of Scripture, of Mishnah, and has no worldly occupation contributes nothing to society” (m. Qiddushin 1:10). “Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehudah the Prince says: ‘Learning Torah is good when combined with a worldly occupation, for working tirelessly at both makes any thought of sin forgotten. However, any Torah study that is not accompanied by productive labor will end up in idleness and lead to sin’” (m. Abot 2:2).
The Rabbis seem to believe in a number of benefits to productive labor. Firstly, it contributes to society, making the world a better place. However, this does not seem to be their main concern. More important to the Rabbis seems to be their idea that a person who does not contribute to society, even if he (or she) believes that he (or she) is involved in spiritual growth by studying Torah. The Rabbis believe that, in the end, this type of life-style will fail. The person, focused only on him- or her-self will inevitably fall into idleness. But as bad as idleness may be as a character trait, this is not the Rabbis’ main concern either. Rather, they believe that idleness will lead to sin. In that sense, they believe that a person who expends his or her energy in productive labor on the one hand and growth in Torah on the other—privileging the latter—will virtually guarantee that they will walk the straight and narrow.
Maimonides offers a classic formulation of both these values in his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Torah Study, 3:10-11): “Anyone who has in mind to study Torah but not to work productively, and to live off the public charity has desecrated the name of God, insulted the Torah and extinguished the light of religion… It is an excellent trait if a person can earn his own living, and it is the way of the pious ones of old, and with this a person will earn all the honor and good of this world and the World to Come…”
Now, it is true that in modern society many people make a living from teaching Torah, and this has been accepted as a fair societal trade, since education has become such a high priority. Additionally, it is true that many people, in order to receive sufficient training need to live off grants for a certain amount of time. However, in my opinion, this only makes sense if this education or training is part of an overall plan for the person to contribute to society with his or her education. This is a very important corrective, in my opinion, to the perpetual student found nowadays in certain kollels, especially in Israel.
Finally, the wealthy have an especially serious challenge. According to the Rabbis lack of hard work and feeling of being productive is a cause for idleness and leads to sin. Certainly, somebody who has enough money that he or she has no need to be productive and can enjoy the pleasures of life without concern is in acute danger of this. One only need to read about some of the excesses in some parts of the upper classes to understand the truth behind this concern. For this reason I believe that Jewish values would require even a self-supporting wealthy person to enter into some sort of project (or projects) that can be considered productive to society. To clarify, I do not mean donating money or showing up at an event, but I mean either working a regular job or involving oneself in a volunteer project by putting in real time, real work and real hours towards its success.
All in all, it seems that Judaism looks positively on a strong work ethic, to protect society’s resources, to contribute to a better world, and to build character such that the person will avoid sin and thereby live a good and honorable life.
Torah begins with God’s “work,” the act of creation. God’s work becomes the source for us to also be involved in work for six days a week. In the 10 commandments it is stated clearly, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is Shabbat of the Lord your God” (Ex. 20:9). That we should be involved in some kind of work or labor, some act of contributing whatever our talents might be to the furthering of God’s creation is a Jewish value.
Supporting ourselves (and others) economically is also valuable. “If there is no flour, there can be no Torah” (Pirkei Avot 3:21). Our labor should provide compensation which supports ourselves, our families, and allows us to contribute tzedakah for those who have fallen on hard times.
There are whole volumes of Jewish law and lore dedicated to the labor relationship between employer and employee. For an excellent analysis on Jewish values regarding the justice of that relationship, I recommend Rabbi Aryeh Cohen’s new book, Justice in the City. Questions like, "What is appropriate compensation" and "What are the obligations of the employee to the employer and vice versa"
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It is safe to say that there is no direct command that refers to the usual necessity or custom of humans to be involved in the working world. Like so many things in Jewish practice, we make inferences from texts that do not, at first, seem to refer to a specific practice. Thus this answer below:
The overall attitude toward work might begin within the Ten Commandments: In Exodus 20:8-10, we read as follows: “Remember the Sabbath day, in order to sanctify it. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Eternal your God…” From this passage we infer a positive commandment about when one performs one’s labors on the earth, and when to rest. Although this passage is used to underscore the approach about how to observe the Sabbath, these words assume that people perform labor, and that this is how one goes through one’s life in the world.
In a later chapter in Exodus, we learn once again about the necessity and timing of work (Exodus 23:12: “Six days you will do thy work, and on the seventh day you will rest…”), and in Leviticus’ Holiness Code (Leviticus 19:13) we learn the beginnings of laws directed toward employers: “Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.” These regulations are a matter of fairness.
The reaction of the Torah about working for “six days” surely reflects an economic necessity of our ancestors in the Ancient Near East. The institution of the Sabbath was an innovation in the life of our ancestors, who had to work hard to earn a hardscrabble living from the land. In our day, we adopt a slightly different attitude, with the five-day workweek, or in some industries and government, an even more modified schedule.
Another inference in tradition is seen in Maimonides’ guidelines of giving tzedakah (virtuous and just giving). We know that the highest form of tzedek (righteousness) consists of providing money, a loan, time, or whatever else it takes to enable an individual to be self-reliant. It is this self-sufficiency that implies that working is the usual condition for humanity.
However, as we learn in Deuteronomy 15:11, “there will never cease to be poor people in the world. Therefore I [God] command you to surely open your hand toward your kinfolk, your poor, and the needy in your land.” Here we see that even though people are commanded to work, there will be those who, for whatever reason, will not be able to take advantage of their natural talents, and therefore we – the working people of the land – will have to care for them.
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