Is Work A Jewish Value?

I remember Conservative rabbi Harold Kushner, in a public dialogue with Dennis Prager, said that Jews had the so-called Protestant work ethic thousands of years before there were Protestants.

Is work a Jewish value?

I’m looking at the Artscroll Stone Chumash on Numbers 22:21: “Surely it was not fitting for a man of Balaam’s stature to saddle his own donkey.”

I notice that attitude a lot in rabbinic literature — that physical work is beneath a man of stature.

This is not an American attitude. Americans think work is ennobling. I remember working in construction and the multi-millionaire boss would often pitch in and get dirty working with us. That’s the American way. We don’t think it is undignified to saddle your own donkey.

Rabbi Rabbs: “America is built on the Protestant work ethic. If you want to be Godly, you have to work. That’s not necessarily the Jewish way. The Jewish way is learning all the time. Judaism doesn’t value working. You can even look at it as a distraction from learning.”

Luke: “The same commandment that says we should not work on the Sabbath says that six days a week we should work.”

The Hebrew word here is “melacha” which is not “work” in the English sense of the word. There is no mitzvah in Judaism to go to work. Working for a living is not something a Jew has to do.

Rabbi Rabbs: “The Rambam says you should not work more than three hours a day.”

Luke: “So the Jewish view is not that work is inherently ennobling.”

Rabbi Rabbs: “The Torah view is that work is a distraction from learning Torah.”

“You don’t have to work eight hours a day. You hire goyim to do that. They’re the ones who should be shlepping (carrying) your bags. Jews should make an appearance three hours a day and then go back and learn.”

Chaim Amalek emails: “Luke, thanks to your blogging I now know that Jews are behind porn and don’t see why they should have to work when there are goyim about. Oh, and Jews cheat like crazy at everything, are a corrupting influence over others, etc. With which parts of Hitler’s analysis of the Jewish character do you disagree?”

Check this video three minutes in:

An Orthodox rabbi tells me: “Rabbi Soloveitchik would seem to agree with you…6 days shall you work…if i am not mistaken – he also said that Judaism embraces the Protestant work ethic. See Days of Deliverance, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik 106ff especially 111,112.”

Rabbi Rabbs emails: Has that rabbi read Rambam Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Talmud Torah Ch. 1, Halachas 11 and 12. Rambam writes:

11) “A person is obligated to divide his Torah study time into three parts: one third should be devoted to the Written Torah, one third to the Oral Torah, and one third to understanding and conceptualizing the ultimate derivation of a concept from its roots.

12) “How is the above expressed? A person who is a craftsman may spend three hours each day involved in his work, and nine hours to Torah study: In those nine hours, he should spend three reading the Written Torah, three reading the Oral Torah, and three meditating with his intellect to derive one concept from another.”

The Schach in Laws of Talmud Torah also paskens that we should learn all day if we can.

The idea that Jews embrace the Protestant work ethic runs counter to Torah thought. Judaism’s way is to focus on learning Torah and learn as much of it as we can during our short time here.

Rabbi emails: I assume that Rabbi Rabbs did not bother to look up the reference in Rabbi Soloveitchik, rather he cited a Rambam… The question is during the 3 hours that the Rambam says you should work – is this good or bad – what is the orientation to the work itself? that the Rambam thinks learning Torah is good is not relevant, that he thinks it is primary is not relevant, the question at hand is what does the Torah think about work. what does the mishna mean when is says yafa talmud torah im derech ertez – it is good to mix torah learning with derech eretz – (worldly pursuits? work?) take a look at what the Rambam says in his commentary to the mishna there – involved in a livelihood. Furthermore according to the Rambam – if one is supported via charity for learning Torah – he is going to hell.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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