Jewish tradition teaches that work is a source of kavod
. When we have done our economic share, we have a different relationship to what we consume. The idea that labor is a critical source of human dignity has powerful biblical and rabbinic support. The G-d in whose image we are created is pictured, from the very first chapter of Genesis, as a working G-d, one who creates on every one of the first six days—and then creates daily, as is stated in the first blessing of the morning service—
Hamehadesh betuvo bekhol yom tamid ma’asey v’reyshit, “who in goodness renews the work of creation every day.” Some people picture perfection is immutable. Not the Jews. Thank G-d that G-d does finally rest on the seventh day, reminding us that rest, as well as work, is g-dly.
The rabbis required fathers to teach their sons a trade; we would broaden this to include all parents and all children. From
Pirkey Avot 3:17 we learn that “where there is no flour, there is no Torah Book & Portion; where there is no Torah, there is no flour.” This reminds us that worldly needs (flour) and spiritual needs (Torah) must be met in balance with each other.
“You will eat the fruit of your labor and be happy, and it will be well with you” says the Psalmist (Psalms 128:2
). The Talmud (Berakhot 8A
) interprets this verse to mean “happy” in this world and “well with you” in the world to come, and goes on to point out that reverence for G-d (yirat Shamayim
) does not by itself guarantee that things will go well in the next world. Work is thus seen as having redemptive power for the person who undertakes it. Productivity has value beyond the external goods purchased. Producing value also has worth in terms of the workers’ experience of the world and their place in it. After eating the forbidden fruit, Adam was told that he would eat bread only by the sweat of his brow [this verse], and the Talmud (Pesahim 118A
) notes that he felt relieved upon hearing this because he understood that making bread involved toil that would separate him from the other animals. The punishments of Eden may also conceal blessings. Though work and childbirth may be among the most difficult of life’s tasks, they can also be among the most rewarding.
While work conveys dignity, idleness is often portrayed as dangerous. The Mishna (Ketubot 5.5
) states that people who can afford not to work should work anyway because idleness can lead to lewdness or depression. The rabbis say that no matter how wealthy one is, one has an obligation to personally play some role in the preparations for Shabbat. Without making the effort to prepare for Shabbat, we would not be able to fully appreciate the rest and joy that it brings. A midrash (Tanhuma Vayetze 13
) says that “when a person toils with both hands, G-d grants blessing.” While we might not all agree with the theology of this passage, the point it makes about work is clear—our lives are shaped and given meaning, in part, by the work that we do. Of course not all work conveys dignity. Oppressive work conditions, poor treatment of workers and devaluing the results of labor remove the meaning and satisfaction from work. Labor that is dehumanizing or degrading robs the worker of kavod
(dignity or honor). Leading a life of kavod
is one of the important reasons to work. Thus, a good society is one that ensures meaningful work to those who are willing and able to do it. Work should not be understood in purely selfish terms as producing value only for the worker. One rabbinic tale (Vakikra Rabba 25.5
) describes an old man planting a tree. The emperor Hadrian happens by and asks why the old man is planting the tree since it will take many years to bear fruit and the old man will not benefit. The old man replies that just as his ancestors planted for him, so is he planting for those who come after him. This popular story uses an apt metaphor. Our work is always about planting. We cannot know the final outcome. All we can do is labor with a clarity of wholesome intentions—plant seeds of
emet, kavod, and
kehila (truth, respect and community).
Work can be a generative and redemptive act. Employers must meet several conditions for work to produce kavod
for their employees. The employer must treat the worker as a person who has kavod
. The worker must see the work as accomplishing something worthwhile. And the conditions under which the worker laborers must be compatible with worker dignity in terms of hours, safety, physical surroundings, compensation and so on. One of the most consistent and central teachings of the biblical prophets was their profound objection to the exploitation of workers.
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