By the Sweat of Your Brow: An Analysis of Jewish Work Values

by Professor David J. Schnall

No doubt the best-known and most enduring analysis of the link between religious culture and work values is Max Weber’s seminal assessment of Protestant faith and the rise of capitalism. In it, Weber argued that early Protestant religious thought particularly the work of John Calvin, committed believers to a harsh, inescapable determinism. Here the unchanging God chooses those who will win grace and those who will be cursed, virtually at their birth. One could never be quite certain of his membership in the Elect, this special group of individuals whom the Lord had chosen for eternal life, but outward testimony was available. Notably, financial success and personal prosperity would attest that the Lord had smiled upon one’s fortune.

In considering the impact of Protestant thought upon capitalist economics, Weber was particularly taken by those elements that were distinct and original to Calvin. For example, financial success and prosperity alone were not sufficient to mark one as a member of God’s Elect. Those chosen also were characterized by lives of disciplined austerity, bordering on the ascetic. In this sense work was intrinsically valued on religious grounds, and not merely for the prosperity it might bring. Idleness and sloth were sinful, but so were materialism, opulence and pride. One must work diligently, for an independent and industrious spirit paved the way to personal redemption. Beyond basic personal needs, profit ought not to be squandered on frivolous luxuries that mark the devil’s temptation. Instead, it was to be reinvested so that it might yield still greater wealth and yet further testify to the righteousness of its possessor.

There was little point in providing assistance to those whose poverty and want suggest that they are not among the Lord’s chosen, for He has ordained that they never raise their status. Instead, profits should be reinvested in personal commercial ventures again and again, to amass wealth and thereby, raise the economic wellbeing of the community at large. In fact by serving God through hard work and austere living, one was free of family tradition, and obliged to seek out those trades and professions that were the most profitable.

Weber argued that these values promoted and encouraged radical changes in the economic systems of Europe and later the New World. In his estimation, delayed material gratification created the pool of resources thwas the basis for capitalist expansion. This in turn nourished more mobile financial systems, which moved Europe away from the land-based economics that reinforced Feudalism and retarded growth.

He insisted that the effects of this Protestant ethic could be observed and empirically measured. He argued that members of Protestant churches tended to work harder, to save more and to show greater financial success than others, especially Catholics. He claimed that similar differences would be evident in comparing predominantly Protestant countries to those whose majority affiliated elsewhere. Others have added that Protestant faith encouraged child-rearing practices that emphasized achievement and that encouraged entrepreneurial success in their children.

More recent empirical attempts to examine Weber’s propositions have yielded mixed results. For example, a study of congregants at 31 Roman Catholic, Protestant Calvinist and Protestant non-Calvinist churches, found that the salience of their religious faith and church participation correlated significantly with their tendency to view work as a “calling.” However, specific denominational norms, sermons and pastoral influence had little effect. Similarly religious affiliation and religious conviction yield little or no correlation with organizational commitment, job satisfaction, job involvement or achievement need.

Yet cross-national research does suggest that the Protestant Work Ethic is alive and well, though not necessarily among Protestants. Comparative studies in Barbados, China, Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka and Uganda have found a commitment to measures of PWE as strong or even stronger than those found in predominantly Protestant nations. This has led analysts to conclude that Weber’s predisposition notwithstanding, many other religious and cultural traditions are rooted in analogous commitments to the centrality of work and to the accumulation of wealth through austerity and frugality.

Matched by the industrial success of Far Eastern nations, notably Japan, this has led cross-cultural research to uncover themes in Eastern faiths that support and encourage work values similar to those of the PWE. Elements of Confucianism, for example, are said to encourage respect for work, discipline, thrift and duty in the maintenance of harmony and support for an ordered society. In addition, interpersonal principles such as Guanxi (social connections and indebtedness) and Jen (warm feeling between people) promote a high degree of organizational loyalty and a close relationships among coworkers, and between employees and management.

Finally, through a variety of encyclicals and authoritative ecclesiastical documents, the Roman Catholic Church has fashioned a unique response to the role of labor in the lives of believers, over the past century. Dubbed Catholic Social Teaching, Papal authority formally entered the realm of modern economic thought with the publication of Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. It grounded workplace relationships in the inherent dignity of the laborer, in a concern for the common good, and in the reciprocal obligation for employees to work energetically and honestly. The welfare of the worker’s family also was included as an important dimension in calculating wages, benefits or career advancement.

This was followed by a series of declarations that presumed the employee’s role as a partner in the enterprise from which he would achieve his god-ordained rights to human fulfillment. From Pius XI (1922-39) to John XIII (1958-1963) to John Paul II (1978 – ) encyclicals, letters and homilies have made this a central point of Church policy. Employers are obligated to expand the role of their workers, encourage their participation in all facets of business, and develop in them the professional and technical skills that will support their new and activist role.

It should be noted that Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) took strong exception to these trends. He evidently concurred with the proposition that employers bear an obligation to consider the personal and social needs of their workers. Yet he saw nothing in Catholic tradition to justify restrictions and limitations of ownership implicit in contemporaneous movements of worker participation. Never formally presented as an encyclical, his was a minority opinion among the many Churchmen with views more liberal and expansive.


It is against this backdrop that we undertake an analysis of Jewish work values as they emerge in classic text. These will be derived from Hebrew Scripture, the Talmud and its commentaries, the medieval codes and the collections of Rabbinic responsa, the approximate equivalent of case law and legal findings developed by leading religious thinkers over the centuries. Particular emphasis will be given to the balance between work and religious study as core social values.

In the Bible labor is introduced as a scourge and punishment to mankind (Genesis 2:15, 3:16-19). Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden to work and to protect it, restricted only in that they refrain from eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Once they transgress the Lord’s will by eating the forbidden fruit, they are expelled from the luxurious garden wherein their physical needs were divinely provided. Moreover, for Adam’s personal iniquity, the land would be ever cursed before him so that he earn bread only “by the sweat of [his] brow.” Despite his ministering, the earth would bring up only thorns and thistles.

Among those seeking inspiration from, and writing commentary to this passage many derived that among Jewish values, therefore, work itself was a curse and a punishment. The need to toil was born in evil and rained upon haman only the sins of his forebears. No longer could man assume that the Lord would provide of His bounty alone. No longer could man reach out and pluck what nature had prepared. For his sin, his consumption now would depend largely upon his own efforts. He would eat, but only with great exertion.

As an example, consider the following Talmudic lament:

Rabbi Shimon ben Eliezer said, have you seen beast or fowl with a craft? Yet they are sustained without pain. Were they not created only to serve me? And I who have been created to serve my maker, should I not certainly subsist without pain? But I have turned my deeds to evil and my subsistence is curtailed (Kedushin 82a).

In its natural state, life for man should be as effortless and carefree as it is for the beast or the bird of the field, who earn their bread with neither trade nor craft to support them. The effortless bounty he rightly deserves is curtailed and because of his evil, he is subject to arduous labor.

Yet normative rabbinic sources largely ignore the passage while considering work in the social scheme. Neither a curse nor purely an instrumental necessity of subsistence, they look upon it as an ennobling facet of moral development. To affirm this proposition, a recent study of some 900 “work related statements” from the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud, the Tosefta and 19 compendia of the Midrash were reviewed and categorized. A quantitative content analysis was executed to discern the norms and values represented by these statements. The results suggest that of all “ideational references” to the value of labor, 84% were positive, reflecting a “high esteem of work and craft.” Evidently this was intrinsic to labor and not merely a concession to its role as a condition for sustenance.

A brief sampling of such statements is in order. Thus labor was so central to the rabbinic scheme for living that the two, work and life, were often equated in literary and poetic form. We read in Moses’ famous soliloquy at the close of a life’s career as leader and lawgiver:

I bring the heavens and the earth as witness that life and death have I placed before you, blessing and curse. And you shall choose life so that you and your children may survive (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Of the variety of messages the rabbis might have derived from the ringing call “choose life,” it is telling that Rabbi Yishmael understood it to mean choosing a trade or a vocation (Talmud Yerushalmi:Peah 1.1; Kedushin 1:7). To earn one’s keep by gainful employment is a central tenet of normal existence set in the crossroads between life and death, between blessing and curse. It was to be understood as “livelihood” in its literal sense, a mode for living.

Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Shimon both declare “great is work for it brings honor to its master” (Nedarim 49b) while Rabbi Yirmiah proclaims its value more dear than noble ancestry (Bereshit Rabba 74:12). In that vein, consider the following from Rabbi Hiyya ben Ami in the name of Ulla:

Greater is one who benefits from the work of his hands than he who stands in fear of heaven. Regarding the fear of heaven it is written: “Happy is the one who fears the Lord” (Psalms 112:1). However, in regard to the work of one’s hands it is written: “If you eat by the work of your hands happy are you and it will go well for you” (Psalms 128:2). Happy are you in this world and it will go well for you in the world to come (Berachot 8a, also Avot 4:1).

The reference is curious. Rewards attributed to the “fear of heaven” reasonably accrue in the spiritual or mystical realms of the World-to-Come. Those attached to self-sufficiency should garner extra benefits in the more material climes of our mundane present. Yet the rabbis chose to understand these texts in reverse. The extra promise “that it shall go well” for one who toils on his own behalf, reflects wellbeing in the celestial regions of eternal paradise.

The dissonance concerned Rabbi Shmuel Ideles, whose commentary expands our point. He relates the story of Rabbi Hanina Ben Dosa (Ta-anit 25a) a saintly soul whose godliness was matched only by his indigence. At his wife’s behest, the rabbi prayed that he and his family be adequately sustained through the mercy of heaven. His prayers were answered when he mysteriously discovered a golden pillar whose sale would support them for many years.

Soon thereafter Rabbi Hanina is visited in a dream in which he sits among the saintly and pious of all ages around golden tables, imbibing the spirit of the Divine. To his shock, however, his table is absent a prop, the very golden pillar that was bequeathed to support his family. Though his petition was just, his stake in Paradise was diminished nonetheless. Again at his wife’s behest, he prays that golden pillar be returned to Heaven. They would live in hunger and want rather than compromise their eternal rewards in the hereafter.

From this Rabbi Ideles infers the moral lesson embedded in our dictum. One places his eternal rewards at risk when piety forces dependence upon the largess of Heaven. By contrast, he who provides for himself assures that his faith and good deeds remain intact and stand him in good stead. To be self-sufficient, therefore provides a spiritual benefit even over the fear of heaven. Beyond a mere prescription for comfortable living, it stands akin to a religious obligation.

Moreover, the Talmud holds parents responsible to properly train and prepare their children for successful lives. Among the essentials in this relationship are the obligations to see that a child marries, and to teach him a trade. To be negligent is tantamount to training one’s child to be a thief (Kedushin 29a, 30b). Yet, a discordant note is sounded. At the very close of the volume that houses much of this discussion, Rabbi Nehorai asserts:

I would leave all the trades in the world and teach my son nothing but Torah. The trades will not stand for him except in his youth. In his elder years he will be suspended in hunger. Not so Torah which will stand for him in his youth and give him future and hope in his old age (Kedushin 82b).

Consequently, the Rabbis of the Talmud were very clear about the place of work in the Jewish scheme. It must never become an obsession, the organizing principle of life. The accumulation of wealth is no sin, but Weber cum Calvin notwithstanding, neither is it a modality by which righteousness is evaluated. Significance, permanence and fulfillment is to be found outside the workplace, through study, prayer, acts of kindness, empathic behavior, probity and compassion. As a general rule, therefore, they advised that one teach his child a clean and simple trade that will overtax neither his energy nor his integrity.


Apart from the choice of a career, exertion in its pursuit, and personal piety, fate and fortune also were considered important ingredients of prosperity. Thus the sage Rava tells us that “one’s life span, children and prosperity do not depend upon personal merit but rather upon mazal” (Moed Katan 28a). Not easily defined, mazal popularly connotes luck or fate though, more precisely, it refers to the astrological signs ascendant on the day and at the hour of birth. In Rava’s view, therefore, the most fundamental elements of life — longevity, fecundity and prosperity — were controlled less by man than by the stars, matters of simple and inalterable fate.

Despite lively discussion and protest to the contrary, many Talmudic commentaries were unwilling to part with the idea that mazal, this peculiar form of Jewish fate exerted a profound influence on these vital aspects of life. Yet to claim that there was no recourse from what had been ordained at birth flew in the face of deeply help values of free choice and personal accountability. To ease the conflict, they argued that the broad social patterns of life along with highly personal and individual dispositions were predetermined. However, given their unique relationship with the Creator, for Jews extraordinary effort in the form of prayer and supplication, joined with personal morality, religious study and acts of kindness and compassion, may avert misforordained.

Their positiwas reinforced by such references as the following:

What shall a man do so that he may become wealthy? Let him increase his business activities and trade. Let him buy and sell honestly and faithfully. Many have done such and it has not helped. Rather, let him beg for mercy from the One with Whom all wealth resides (Niddah 70b).

What emerges therefore, is a manifold formula whereby assiduous labor and honest trade combine with personal merit and with mazal to determine material success. Pursuing one to the exclusion of the others is a prescription for disappointment and failure. Moreover, hard work alone is no guarantor of wealth. In fact it may actually hinder success if its overemphasis becomes an obstacle to moral and spiritual improvement.

Similarly, merit and supplication may avert the penury or misfortune already ordained by the stars — but, then again, it may not. Therefore, one is warned to “increase his business activities,” i.e. to work hard and honestly. Yet he is not to lose faith if hard-working saints spend their lives in poverty even as the evil prosper. Mazal remains part of the mix, and according to some, the determining factor. A fourth element, the Lord’s compassion remains available for if all other paths prove insufficient.

For parents to teach their children a trade that is simple and clean takes on fuller meaning in this context. Given elements of prosperity cannot be controlled nor can all misfortunes be averted, no matter how fervent the prayer, how sincere the penance. Therefore encourage children to choose a trade that is simple and clean, neither degradinor exhausting, a trade that leaves ample time for religious reflection and study, a trade that will become neither life’s central focus nor its driving force. Early on, teach them that poverty is a function of neither sloth nor indifference. A successful life is marked not by wealth and material acquisition but by spiritual values and personal morality.


Notwithstanding the honor accorded work as a vital aspect of successful living, at the roots of Jewish tradition reside dreams of a life devoted to the full-time study of Jewish texts, exclusive of mundane and material responsibilities. One well-known Talmudic passage used to open the daily prayers, suggests that the study of Torah is equal to all other commandments combined (Peah 1:1, Shabbat 127a). Over time, special provisions were made to accommodate those for whom “Torah is their profession,” including public support for their families so that they may pursue their studies unburdened by worldly concerns. Indeed the Talmudic definition of a large city is one in which there were at least ten batlanim, or “free-riders, ” who would spend their days in study and reflection, also performing various communal functions and assuring that there was always a minyan, a religious quorum for prayer (Megilah 5a).

However, the proper balance between work and study and the nature of public support for those who chose Torah as their “profession” remains a matter of serious controversy to this day. The Talmud records a lively debate (Brachot 35b) that speaks directly to the issue. It is based in their reading of the biblical verse “and I shall give you rain in its season, early and later, and you shall gather your grain,” (Deuteronomy 11:14) as against,

and the words of the Torah shall not be absent from your mouth and you shall be immersed in them day and night so that you guard all that is written therein. For then your path shall be successful and you shall grow wise (Joshua 1:8).

The interlocutors are bothered by the apparent contradiction. Can one gather grain, both literally and figuratively toiling at his work and yet still remain constantly immersed in the words of Torah? Rather, Rabbi Yishmael concludes, deal with these words in “the way of the world,” i.e. these obligations ought not to be understood literally. Work must be combined with study. Otherwise, to paraphrase Rashi’s commentary, one will become dependent upon the charity of others and neglect his study entirely.

Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai thinks otherwise:

Can it be that a person shall plow in season and plant in season and harvest in season and mill in season and plant in the wind? What shall become of Torah? Rather when Israel fulfills the will of the Lord their work will be performed by others …When Israel does not fulfill the will of the Lord then they must perform their own labor…and more, the work of others must they also perform.

Several points are in order. Rabbi Shimon’s position evokes the plight of primordial Man in the Garden of Eden. As there, here too worldly toil is cast as a form of punishment heaped upon him for his sin. If Israelites would but follow the ways of the Lord by devoting their time to the singular study of His holy books, they would be freed of such mundane obligations. Absent this commitment menial labor emerges to fill the breach.

Rabbi Shimon’s impatience with what Rabbi Yishmael terms “the way of the world” is clear from anecdotes related elsewhere. The best known (Shabbat33b) illustrates our point with powerful imagery. We are told that Rabbi Shimon was overheard making disparaging remarks about the Roman overlords of Judea. To flee the authorities, he sought refuge first in his study hall and then in a cave. There along with his son Rabbi Elazar, he devoted himself exclusively to Torah study for twelve long years, sustained by God’s compassion in the miraculous appearance of a spring and a carob tree.

He and his son emerged from the cave only after receiving word that his persecutors had relented. Forced to acclimate themselves to normal human society once more, the two rabbis were shocked as farmers and workman went about their daily business, plowing, sowing and harvesting. “They forsake eternal life and occupy themselves with passing needs,” Rabbi Shimon said, horrified.

There anger so roiled that by the Talmudic account, everything caught in their gaze burst into flame. In short order, a voice boomed from the heavens, demanding that they return to the cave lest they destroy the world by their passion and their righteous indignation. Rabbi Shimon was not yet ready to accept the demands placed upon those less exalted.

He and his son went into seclusion once more, their confinement no longer a sanctuary from Roman oppression but more a form of divine penalty. They remained in the cave for an additional twelve months, the sentence place by tradition upon the most evil in Purgatory. When they emerged once more, they again encountered peasants and villagers pursuing their livelihood. As before, flames burst forth from Rabbi Elazar’s penetrating glance but this time his father rushed to heal those wounds.

“The world has enough with you and me alone,” Rabbi Shimon told his son, suggesting that not everyone need copy their model of staunch discipline and rigor. Subsequently they spied an old farmer, gathering myrtle from his harvest for the Sabbath. His simple piety, combining the work ethic with devotion to the Lord’s command, assuaged them and calmed their fiery spirit. Now the two rabbis could re-enter society without undermining its very foundations.

Evidently, Rabbi Shimon, a man of unbending principal and strict demeanor, was initially unable to merge fealty to God’s will with the “way of the world”. The fire in his soul threatened to consume the natural order, and he was banished to the cave by nothing less than divine decree. One with such a singular commitment, no matter how pure and sanctified, must live out his years divorced from society. It is no surprise therefore that for Rabbi Shimon if one plows and sows then “what shall become of Torah?”

Yet his Scriptural reading disquiets the commentaries. For them, it is ironic to claim, as he does, that the verse “and you shall gather your grain,” is meant as a warning or a penalty. Both from its use elsewhere on the very same Talmudic page, and from the verse that immediately precedes it, the phrase is clearly meant as the promise of reward to those who “shall surely listen to My commandments.” How can Rabbi Shimon consits meaning to the contrary?

Inan attempt to make peace with his assertions, they conclude that for Rabbi Shimon too, the phrase promises reward, albeit an imperfect one. Righteousness incomplete condemns one to “gather his own grain,” distracting him from the more elevated pursuits of study and prayer that should properly occupy his time. By contrast, those of impeccable faith and conduct shall have others to toil on their behalf.

Issuing no comment on the cogency of these claims, the Talmud (Berachot 35a) draws conclusions grounded in common experience. Abaye declares that many have followed the advice of Rabbi Yishmael and succeeded. By contrast, of those who followed Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai many did not. As a practical matter the Talmud seems to suggest that a balanced relationship between Torah study and gainful employment is a more likely recipe for personal success. Rabbi Shimon’s strictures are reserved for the very few. One is well advised not to pursue such a path, lest he be undone by his own presumptions.

Finally, it is appropriate to conclude this facet of our discussion with two well-known citations from Avot, an eaTalmudic collection of ethical teachings and homilies that will figure handily in our later analysis. First,

Rabban Gamliel son of Rabbi Yehuda the Prince said, better is the study of Torah with derekh eretz, for the effort expended in the two will keep sin out of mind. All Torah that is not accompanied by work ultimately will be nullified and cause sin (Avot 2:2).

As above, derekh eretz, literally the way of the world, is a euphemism for employment and livelihood. Here Rabban Gamliel advises that when pursued in tandem with study, both are strengthened. Unlike Rabbi Shimon above, there is no consideration even for the few that may succeed at a life of study. Work is a necessary component to successful religious fulfillment. Study alone will be nullified. Ironically, it even may lead one astray.

Commentaries support the point by noting that one searching for salvation solely by his learning soon will be left with no sustenance. He may come to abandon his studies and depend upon gambling, thievery, and deception for his bread. Beyond this, Rabbi Zadok tells us:

Do not use them [words of Torah] as a crown by which to be glorified nor a shovel with which to dig. And so Hillel would say “one who uses the Torah as his trade shall be removed.” From this we learn that any who derive benefit from the words of Torah remove their lives from the world (Avot 4:5).

Quite apart from encouraging a life program that combines gainful employment and religious study, this source looks with disdain upon those who would support themselves through their study. The words of Torah must remain pristine and pure, pursued for intrinsic value and not as a tool with which to justify one’s keep. To do otherwise demeans their sanctity and “removes” one from the world. In a parallel sentiment, students are warned not to seek honor or tribute for their wisdom, never learning so that others might call them master and they spend their days in the academy (Nedarim 62a). As we shall demonstrate, the sentiment grounded in these texts helped fuel the next stage of our debate.


The growing controversy over these alternative routes to successful living continued among later Jewish scholars. For example, following the path defined just above, Maimonides minced few words in expressing his utter disdain for those who accept public support so that they may devote themselves exclusively to their learning.

Whomsoever has in his heart that he shall indulge in the study of Torah and do no work but rather be sustained from charity, defames the Lord’s name, cheapens the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, causes himself ill and removes himself from the world to come. For it is forbidden that one benefit from words of Torah in this world…

…all Torah that is not accompanied by work will be nullified and end in sin. Ultimately such a person will steal from others. One is at a high level if he is sustained by the efforts of his own hand, a characteristic of the pious of early generations. In this he will merit all the honor and good of this world and the world to come, as it is written, “If you eat by the work of your hands happy are you and it will go well for you” (Psalms 128:2). Happy are you in this world and it will go well for you in the world to come.

In his commentary to the words of Rabbi Zadok, he enumerates the many scholars and sages who performed menial labor rather than accept philanthropic aid. They saw no difficulty in suspending their study temporarily so that they might labor on behalf of their families and households, always remembering that work was transitory in life while Torah was its foundation. Those who bring evidence to the contrary, Maimonides concludes, are “insane and confused.”

His argument and the passion with which it was declared raised a storm of protest. Rabbi Yosef Caro, in his Kesef Mishneh commentary to Maimonides, strained to refute the master’s claim, point by point. From earliest times scholars sustained themselves through their learning, he countered, whether as students, teachers, or religious functionaries. To be sure, those who enter the field only to reap its benefits were to be condemned, alongside those with the means to support themselves but who accept charity nonetheless. However, those devoted to religious study purely “for the sake of heaven” deserved no such castigation. The community was obliged to support them.

He concludes his lengthy discourse by noting that practice and usage should serve as the arbiters of tradition, guiding our actions at every turn. Perhaps the sages of prior generations agreed in principle that students not reduce themselves to dependence upon charity and the dole. Yet in contemporary times a preoccupation with the demands of trade or profession would cause Torah learning to be forgotten and abandoned. Else why were there so many examples, both before and since, of precisely that practice which Maimonides seeks to defame.

Rabbi Caro was joined by Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran, a fifteenth century scholar of Spain and North Africa. Scandalized by the aspersions being cast upon generations of scholars properly maintained by communal funds, he claimed that Maimonides:

broke his good senses and miscast all the scholars and rabbis of his time and those who preceded him. And because he spoke in anger he came to err and to call them insane. Is a prophet insane, or is the man of God’s spirit?

It was his [Maimonides’] good fortune to be close to royalty and honored in his generation, and because of his medical wisdom he was not required to accept fees from the communities he served. What shall rabbis and sages do if they have not reached this quality? Shall they die in hunger, demean their honor and remove the yoke of Torah from their backs? That is not the intent of Torah, the commandments or the Talmud.

Notwithstanding the zealous indignation expressed by both sides, the less passionate rulings of their contemporaries generally reinforced the obligation of scholars to seek their own livelihood and avoid becoming wards of the community. Representative examples of these findings deserve brief digression. One, dating to the 13th century, deals with a learned scholar who was libeled by a member of his community who took his allegations to the Gentile authorities. Upon investigation the claims made by this scoundrel were proven false. In the action that followed, the scholar sought damages for his defamation.

The case came before Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel (ROSH), of Germany and Spain who found for the claimant. The matter of setting specific financial liability turned upon his status as a scholar, i.e. one who was fully devoted to his Torah studies. To forestall any further aspersion against the him, Rabbi Asher provided the following definition of a scholar:

That his Torah is his craft and that he sets regular periods for Torah and cancels none of his studies, except for his maintenance. For it is impossible for him to learn without maintenance, for “if there ino flour there is no Torah,” and ” all Torah that not accompanied by work ultimately will be nullified and cause sin”… The rest of the day, when he is free and he is not required to seek after his maintenance, he returns to his books and studies and he never strolls in the markets and roadways but for his livelihood and that of his household. Nor should he labor to accumulate much money. This I call a scholar.

Though afield of the petition, Rabbi Asher has provided us with a clear statement of the responsibilities of one who dons these exalted robes. Of course, he expected to commit himself to Torah study, but not to the exclusion of his mandate to support himself and his family. If he wasted none of his time, nor did he allow such pursuits to overtake him, his status was secure and he deserved the financial redress appropriate to that station.

A second communal controversy later sheds similar light upon the work values held dear even for one pursuing the life of a scholar. Judging from the number of rulings issued on the topic and the fervent zeal evident in their language, the matter plainly engendered much vehemence on both sides. Throughout the Middle Ages Jewish leadership was much pressed to raise revenues to pay exorbitant and abusive taxes heaped upon them by gentile overlords, both lay and ecclesiastical. They sought funds from every imaginable source, and that included the income of local rabbis and scholars.

However, longstanding Jewish tradition and practice generally exempted members of the clergy from taxes and other forms of revenue generation, regardless of their own financial holdings or business pursuits. Still communal authorities held that, Rabbi Asher’s dictum notwithstanding, a scholar’s life was to be devoted totally to his Torah studies, excluding any other activities, especially those that generated income. One who pursued gainful employment in the secular marketplace could no longer claim that “Torah was his trade.” He was not a genuine scholar and he should pay his fair share.

For their part, rabbinic thinkers staunchly supported the clergy exemption and it is here that the affair becomes relevant to our discussion. They consistently defended the pursuit of financial self-sufficiency on the part of Torah students as an equally legitimate aim for their life’s pursuit. In no way did it diminish their claim to membership in the heady cadre of those for whom “Torah was their trade.” For them it was self-evident that scholars had a moral obligation to support themselves rather than depend upon charitable assistance. The writing of Rabbi Mordechai HaLevi of 17th century Egypt eloquently represents these opinions.

The studies that deal with the exemption of Rabbis from tax and other forms of levee, how were they expressed? Did they refer to those who go begging from door to door? Did they speak of ministering angels that neither eat nor drink and have no bodily needs? It is written openly that one should do all manner of work, even that is strange to him rather than depend upon others…

From all the studies we learn that the Talmudic sages exempted rabbis absorbed in Torah, not meaning that they did not toil after their food and sustenance and the sustenance of their household. Rather, they exempted those who fulfilled the verse “and you shall be immersed in [Torah] day and night,” according to their power and their abilities. They exempted those who did not suspend the words of Torah except to fulfill amitzvah, to seek after their food and their sustenance and the sustenance of their household and their food.

His sentiments echo those earlier expressed by colleagues and predecessors from Austria, France, Turkey, Greece and Palestine over a period of 300 years.


The debate and the controversy notwithstanding, mainstream Jewish attitudes reflected in normative codes of practice appear fairly consistent. Thus Rabbi Yacov ben Asher Ba’al Haturim in his code of religious laws and traditions cites Maimonides almost verbatim, insisting upon financial self-sufficiency for scholars and students alike. Rabbi Yosef Caro, consistent with his notes on Maimonides cited above, softens this ruling, in his Bet Yosef commentary to Rabbi Yacov’s code. Again he argues that scholars are within their right to accept public support even as communities are well advised to provide it. Yet he concedes that as a sign of piety and godliness, those able to see to their own material needs should refrain from accepting public funds.

However, in his own collection of laws and traditions, Rabbi Caro takes still another path. Following the Ba’al Haturim, he employs two categories to deal with the topic at hand. In one he considers customs and practices regarding the study of Torah, educational methodology and the relationship between students and their instructors. There, despite his previous defense of publicly supported scholarship, he simply ignores the matter of study and employment entirely.

His reserve here notwithstanding Rabbi Caro takes a more definitive stand on the issue in its other incarnation relative to the daily regimen of Jewish religious observance. His thrust seems to contradict his writings elsewhere as he rules that after fulfilling the ritual obligations of prayer and supplication each morning, the believer is obliged to leave for the job. “Torah, which is not accompanied by work,” he writes, quoting from Avot cited above, “will ultimately be nullified.” He closes with a stern warning that all one’s dealings must ever be honest and faithful.

The decision is a rather straightforward statement in support of gainful employment from one of the primary advocates of undistracted Torah study. Still modern authorities have interpreted it in ways that allow the millennial debate to continue. On the one hand, Rabbi Yechiel Michael Epstein understands it in simplest terms. Citing Rabbi Caro verbatim and quoting earlier sources, he adds:

And many have been mistaken in this and have said that a vocation is demeaning. Yet many Talmudic sages were workmen and we have read in the Midrash that work is more dear than distinguished lineage…. Still, one must never allow his work to be primary and his Torah to be temporary, but rather his Torah shall be primary and his work temporary and thus both will be sustained.

And it seems to me that this is only for a scholar whose main dealings are in Torah. But for an average householder this does not apply. For an average householder there is no obligation other than to establish periods for study…[but a scholar] is obliged to study Torah all the day and all the night except for what is necessary to seek his livelihood.

Notable is his differentiation between the life’s mission of the scholar who must enforce Torah study as the core of his existence, and the householder, for whom there is no such obligation. Yet, even the scholar must take time from his studies to seek the material needs of his household. Elsewhere he argues that Maimonides himself would support a salary and financial emolument for those whose wisdom and skill merits their appointment as communal functionaries and religious leaders. In effect, this has become their profession.

However, Rabbi Yisrael Meyer Ha-Cohen understood Rabbi Caro’s ruling in favor of gainful employment quite differently. In his Beur Halakhacommentary, he agrees that the workaday world is an appropriate venue for the large majority of otherwise pious and learned individuals. However, in a gloss evocative of Shimon Ben Yochai, he declares that in each generation some few stand on a spiritual and intellectual plane so exalted that they merit the right to devote themselves solely to Torah, depending upon the Lord for their livelihood.

He adds an important caveat, however. Even those who reach for this exalted plane may pursue their particular destiny only if they find patrons and sponsors who agree in advance to support their exclusive commitment to Torah. To buttress his case, Rabbi Yisrael Meir cites references to a similar relationship said to exist between Yissachar and Zevulun, sons of the Biblical Patriarch Jacob. A nuance not unbut rarely invoked in prior debate over this issue, the analogy hbecome a rally point in its contemporary manifestations.

A cursory glance at the text in which this famous relationship is rooted sheds light on our discussion. The rabbis appear troubled that in two separate Biblical passages the tribes of Israel are enumerated out of their usual order: the elder Yissachar is listed only after Zevulun the younger, due to their most unusual partnership. By prior arrangement, the descendants of Zevulun pursued commercial endeavors, while the families of Yissachar committed themselves to Torah study, supported through the income earned by their cousins of Zevulun. The Rabbis conclude that reflecting their relative importance to this partnership, Scripture ignores their order of birth and gives priority to Zevulun, the tradesman and merchant, over Yissachar the scholar.

In addition, Rabbi Yisrael Meir refers us to the Tribe of Levi as yet another early model for today’s scholars. Exempted from civic obligations in order to perform public and religious functions in ancient Israel, it was for them to serve as “the army of God.” By consequence they were not apportioned a geographic base but were dispersed in cities and religious centers throughout the country, supported by the tithes and taxes mandated in Scripture. To make his case he cites the following from Maimonides:

And not just the Tribe of Levi alone but each individual from all parts of the world whose spirit moves him and by his wisdom he separates himself to stand before the Lord to serve and to know God and walk honestly before Him. He shall relieve himself of the yoke of the many demands that people seek. Therefore is this one sanctified among the most holy and the Lord will be his portion and his heritage forever. He shall merit in this world that which is sufficient for himself, as did the Priests and the Levites.

A careful reading of Maimonides, however, provides no indication that he saw exclusive Torah study at public expense as the function of the Levites of old. It is nowhere mentioned in the chapter cited, it flies in the face of his vituperation against such practices, and none of the primary commentaries to his work, or subsequent scholars for that matter, infer any such allusion.

The very point seems to have disturbed Rabbi Dovid ibn Zimri who provides us with the singular relevant gloss. In his notes to this passage, Rabbi Dovid adds “the Holy One will enable him to profit from the world that which is sufficient for himself so that he shall not thrust himself on the public.” This clearly runs quite to contrary of the analogy being struck between the ancient men of Levi and those who seek to devote themselves exclusively to Torah study at public expense. At least in the mind of Rabbi Dovid ibn Zimri, Maimonides means no license here for their public support.

Finally, there is a small body of empirical data that provides a unique test of these issues and the degree to which they may be salient among Jewish workers today. The results take us full circle, evoking the sentiments with which we began this exploration. A comparative study of work values in Israel, Germany and Holland, the latter two nations with large Protestant populations, found that for German and Dutch workers there were clear positive relationships between work centrality and religious commitment, suggesting the positive influence of Protestant ideals on work values. Among Israelis, however, religious conviction and religious education were negatively correlated with work centrality, suggesting that Jewish religious influences lead in an opposite direction.

Similarly, the obligation to work and its intrinsic value were important to religious respondents from Germany and Holland, but only among non-religious respondents from Israel. To the extent that Jewish religious culture can be isolated in a cross-national study it appears to influence adherents in a direction opposite to the norms of the Protestant Work Ethic.

Moreover, workers in the survey were asked:

Imagine that you won a lottery or inherited a large sum of money and could live comfortably for the rest of your life without working; what would you do about work – continue or stop working? In Israel, only 10.3% of the non-religious respondents said they would stop working, whereas 21% of the respondents with strong religious convictions show such a desire. When the latter were asked, “Why would you stop working?” their overwhelmingly prevalent reply was “to practice and study the Torah.”

The broad majority of all workers, whatever their religious sensibilities, report that should fortune smile upon them in this unexpected manner, they would continue on the job. Apparently work values remain central for them, despite their ideological or spiritual differences. It is revealing, however, that more than twice as many “with strong religious convictions” say that if they were rich they would forgo their work in favor of religious study and practice.


A summary of our discussion must take us to where we began. There is much in the Jewish attitude toward work that stands in common with both the Protestant Work Ethic and with Catholic Social Teaching. Like Calvin, many rabbis saw intrinsic religious value in labor as an expression of human accomplishment and mastery over his environment. There was no evil in the accumulation of wealth and honest effort toward self-sufficiency was lauded as a boon to religious study and as a complement to the “fear of heaven.”

Yet there is little of the harsh determinism that emerges, especially in Weber’s treatment of Calvin. Economic status on its own is no indicator of righteousness and the power of fate may easily rearrange financial fortunes. Consequently, one is advised to attend to personal merit and prayer as ingredients for material success, and to accept the role of mazal as an unpredictable element in the mix. Better choose work that is simple and clean and which allows ample time and energy for religious and personal fulfillment.

By the same token, Jewish tradition shares with Catholic Social Teaching the concern for the worker as a weak and often vulnerable partner to the commercial relationship. Its inclination in favor of the laborer has been well documented as part of an attempt to create balance and equity in the marketplace. However, this does not suggest that the worker becomes a partner thereby to corporate decisions over capital, policy or the allocation of resources. Jewish thought retains its basic commitment to private property and the rights it implies. While work remains a central value in mainstream Jewish thought, it cannot be the core of personal identity, nor is there an inherent right of empowerment and self-determination associated with employment.

We also have demonstrated that over the centuries, the mainstream of Jewish thought has favored a life of balance between religious study and labor, for the large majority of its adherents. Indeed it questions the legitimacy of an exclusive devotion to the study hall if dependence upon charity and public support is the result. Yet, none of this should be interpreted as an attack on Torah study, per se.

After all, most everything that has been marshaled here is rooted in its sources, indicating, if nothing else, that the question of balance and priority has occupied interpreters of the tradition for tens of centuries. Surely, every culture and civilization makes special provision for its scholars and sages. Those committed to Torah study exclusively have always held a unique place in Jewish life and under the limits described above, their position should be no different in modern Israel and the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. Yet that may be precisely the point.

The mainstream of Rabbinic thinking sharply differentiates between the broad population and a sand select handful of scholars. The former expresses its religious devotion and fulfills its spiritual obligations in large measure by working with diligence and integrity, setting aside time for study and reflection as possible. Their commitment to honest, gainfulemployment is in no wise demeaning nor does it undermine their status among thefaithful of the Lord.

By the same token, the study hall as an exclusive domain, is reserved for the very few. Even those who have made a spirited defense of this lifestyle over the years could scarcely argue that it was intended as normative and modal for the broad population. It is hardly likely that they envisioned whole communities, the bulk of whose male population enters this pursuit virtually as an entitlement, with little consideration aptitude or accountability, and the bulk of whose female population will marry no one that toils for his bread. Nor did they suggest they one raise children to expect the same and that their sustenance be provided by involuntary taxpayers and unwitting philanthropists as a matter of public policy

Rather, the intellectual battle raged over the justification for taking any financial benefit from Torah, whether in return for service as a teacher or religious leader, or as an outright grant in the pursuit of religious study. Even those who supported the idea saw as a concession. Latter-day scholars, they opined, were simply inadequate to the task of earning their keep as they attempted to master their texts. It is a relatively recent claim, that intensive Torah study was a contribution to communal wellbeing and security or that it qualified per se for charitable support.

In this vein, the words of Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaCohen, often invoked in support of exclusive Torah study at public expense, deserve one more look. First, his gloss to Rabbi Caro’s ruling in favor of gainful employment is directed at the exclusive and exceptionally qualified. Moreover, he demands that even these few must seek out sponsors and patrons willing to underwrite their Torah study by prior arrangement, caring for the financial needs of their families on an individual and voluntary basis. Nowhere is life on the dole lauded or showcased as a model for the next generation.

His citation reinforces the point. Zevulun, the merchant, is given priority for his secular and material endeavors on behalf of pious Yissachar and his studies. Properly channeled, employment and commercial pursuit is held aloft here. Alongside those few groomed for exclusive study, well-intentioned students might well consider this second model, even as their instructors work to develop a new generation of “Zevuluns,” successful business leaders and professionals with a special sensitivity for Torah.


Dr. David J. Schnall is Herbert Schiff Professor of Management and Administration at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work of Yeshiva University.

* This paper is abstracted from the author’s forthcoming book, By the Sweat of Your Brow: Aspects of Work and the Workplace in Classic Jewish Thought(New York: Yeshiva University Press). It was completed during his tenure as Fulbright Professor and Senior Scholar at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, 1999-2000. He wishes to express his deepest gratitude to the Fulbright Foundation for its kind assistance and generous support.

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During the 1999-2000 academic year Dr. Schnall served as Fulbright Visiting Professor and Senior Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is an ordained rabbi and author/editor of 8 books and over 100 articles, essays and reviews dealing with professional ethics, Jewish issues and public policy.


1. Max Weber (1958) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Scribner’s; also Martin Rose (1985) Reworking the Work Ethic: Economic Values and Socio-Cultural Politics. London: Schocken; and A. Furnham (1990) The Protestant Work Ethic: The Psychology of Work Related Beliefs and Ethics. London: Routledge.

2. See e.g. David McClleland (1961) The Achieving Society, Princeton, New Jersey: Van Nostrand, and Paul Bernstein (1997). American Work Values: Their Origin and Development. SUNY Press.

3. James Davidson and David P. Cadell(1994) “Religion and the Meaning of Work. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33(2):135-142 and Leonard Cushmir and Christine Koberg (1988) “Religion and Attitudes Toward Work: A New Look at an Old Question” Journal of Organizational Behavior 9(1): 251-262. Also see G. Hofstede (1983) “The Cultural Relativity of Organizational Practices and Theories”Journal of International Business Studies 14(2):75-90 and G. Hofstede (1993) “Cultural Constraints on Management Theories”. Academy of Management Executive 7(1):81-94.

4. For a review of these efforts see Jennifer Dose (1997) “Work Values: An Integrative Framework and Illustrative Application to Organizational Socialization” Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 70(3):219-240; MOW International Research Team (1987) The Meaning of Work. London: Academic Press.

5. See James Lincoln and Arne Kalleberg (1985) “Work and Work Force Commitment: A Study of Plants and Employment in the US and Japan” Sociological Review 30(3): pp.738-760; F.S. Niles (1999) “Toward a Cross Cultural Understanding of Work Related Beliefs.” Human Relations 52(7): 855-867; A. Furnham, et al (1993) “A Comparison of Protestant Work Ethic Beliefs in Thirteen Nations.” Journal of Social Psychology, 133(2):185-197; Jing-lih Farh, Anne Tsui, Katherine Xin Bor-Shiuan Cheng (1998) “The Influence of Relational Demography and Quanxi: The Chinese Case” Organizational Science 9(4): 471-488; Lisa Hope Peled and Katherine Xin (1997) “Work Values and their Human Resource Management Implications: A Theoretical Comparison of China, Mexico and the United States.” Journal of Applied Management Studies 6(2):185-198; David A. Ralston (1997) “The Impact of National Culture and Economic Ideology on Managerial Work Values: A Study of the United States, Russia, Japan and China” Journal of International Business Studies 28(1): 177-208. Norman Coates (1987) “The “Confucian Ethic” and the Spirit of Japanese Capitalism” Leadership and Organizational Development Journal 2(3):17-23.

6. Gerald C. Treacy (1939) Rerum Novarum: The Condition of Labor NY: The Paulist Press; also Michael Zigarelli (1993) “Catholic Social Teaching and the Employment Relationship” Journal of Business Ethics 12(1): 75-82.

7. Michael Naughton (1995) “Participation in the Organization: An Ethical Analysis from the Papal Social Tradition” Journal of Business Ethics 14(11): 923-935; also Michael Naughton (1992). The Good Stewards. Lanham MD: University of American Press.

8. Bilha Mannheim and Avraham Sela (1991) “Work Values in the Oral Torah” Journal of Psychology and Judaism 15(4):252

9. Rabbi Shmuel Ideles, Agudot Maharsha: Berachot, 8a

10. See Tosafot:Moed Katan 28a s.v. elah be-mazalah;Tifferet Yisrael Kidushin 4:14 s.v. lefi zekhut; Tosafot: Shabbat 156a, s.v. ayn mazal le-yisrael; Rashi: Yevamot 70a, s.v. zachah mosifin lo and Tosafot: Yevamot 70a, s.v. mosifin lo; also see Tosafot: Kedushin 82a, s.v. elah ha-kol, Tosafot: Moed Katan 28a, s.v. elah be-mazalah and Agudot HaMaharsha: Moed Katan 28a, s.v. be-mazalah talia.

11. See Tosafot: Brachot 35b, s.v. kan bizman she-Yisrael, and Rabbi Shmuel Ideles, Agadot Hamaharsha: Brachot 35b, s.v. shene-emar.

12. Rabbi Ovadiah Bar Tenora, Avot 2:2 sv vechol Torah, Rashi, Avot 2:2 sv Sheyegiat, and Lesof, Rabbi Moshe Maimonides (RAMBAM)Perush HaMishnayot: Avot 2:2 and Rabbenu Yonah Gerondi, Avot 2:2 svechol Torah.

13. Rabbi Moshe Maimonides (RAMBAM) Yad HaHazakah: Hilchot Talmud Torah, 3:10-11 and Perush HaMishnayot: Avot, 4:5.

14. Rabbi Yosef Caro, Kesef Mishneh: Hilchot Talmud Torah, 3:10.

15. Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran Tashbetz, 1:146.

16. Rabbi Asher ben Yehel, Shelot U’Teshivot HaRosh, 15:10

17. Rabbi Mordechai HaLevi, Shelot U’Teshivot Darkhei Noam: Choshen Mishpat item 55 and 56.

18. See e.g. Rabbi Yisrael Isserlein, Terumat Hadeshen item 342; Rabbi Moshe Al-Shakar, Shelot U’Teshivot Maharam Al-Shakar, item 19; Rabbi Benyamin ben Matityahu, Shelot U’Teshivot Binyamin Zev, item 252; Rabbi Levi Ben Yacov Ibn Haviv, Shelot U’Teshivot Maharalbach, item 140; Sefer Kolbo item147. Also, see the rulings of Rabbi Yosef Caro Sulchan Arukh: Yoreh Deah 243:2 and Rabbi Shabbtai HaCohen, Siftei Kohen: Yoreh Deah 243:6-7.

19. Rabbi Yacov ben Asher Ba’al Haturim, Tur Shulchan Arukh:Yoreh Deah, 246, and Orach Chaim,156.

20. Rabbi Yosef Caro, Beit Yosef: Yoreh Deah, 246:21 and Orach Chaim, 156:1

21. Rabbi Yechiel Michael Epstein, Oreykh HaShulchan:Orach Chaim, 156:1-2.

22. Rabbi Yechiel Michael Epstein,Oreykh HaShulchan:Yoreh Deah, 246:39.

23. Rabbi Yisrael Meyer Ha-Cohen, Beur Halakha: Orach Chaim, 156:1. For other recent manifestations of the debate see, e.g. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Iggerot Moshe:Yoreh Deah, 4:36-37. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Iggerot Moshe: Orach Chaim, 3:111. Rabbi Moshe Sofer, Hiddushei Chatam Sofer: Sukkot 36a; Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Yechaveh Daat 3:75; Rabbi Mordecai Greenberg (1999) Henaheg Bahem Minhag Derekh Eretz. Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh and Abraham Steinberg and Fred Rosner (1996). “Sources for the Debate: Torah Alone or Torah Togethwith Worldly Occupation” Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, 32(1):65-9.

24. See e.g. Bereshit Rabbah 99, s.v. zevulun le hof.

25. Rabbi Moshe Maimonides (RAMBAM) Yad HaHazakah: Hilchot Shemittah VeYovel 13:13.

26. Rabbi Dovid Ibn Zimri (RIDVAZ) Hilchot Shemittah VeYovel, 13:12.

27. Itzhak Harpaz (1998) “A Cross National Comparison of Religious Conviction and the Meaning of Work” Cross Cultural Research, 32(2):143-170. See also Itzhak Harpaz (1999) “The Transformation of Work Values in Israel,” Monthly Labor Review 122(5):46-51 and Itzhak Harpaz (1990) The Meaning of Work in Israel: Its Nature and Consequences. New York: Praeger.

28. See for example, Aaron Levine (1987) Free Enterprise and Jewish Law. New York: Yeshiva University, Meir Tamari (1987) With All Your Possessions: Jewish Ethics and Economic Life. New York: The Free Press and David J. Schnall (1999) “The Employee as Corporate Stakeholder: Exploring the Relationship between Jewish Tradition and Contemporary Business Ethics” in Aaron Levine and Moshe Pava (eds.) Jewish Business Ethics: The Firm and Its Stakeholders. New York: Jason Aaronson, pp. 45-75.