Living Torah #18
During the Second Century CE, Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai spoke out against the Roman order that no Torah should be studied in Eretz Yisrael. He and his son were forced to flee to a cave where the Talmud tells us they remained for twelve years. During that time, they did nothing but eat, sleep, and study Torah. By the twelfth year they seemed to glow with the fire of Torah learning.
At the end of the twelfth year, Rabbi Simeon and his son learned that the Roman emperor had died and the decree against Torah study was lifted. At last, it was safe for them to come out of their cave.
They were approaching Jerusalem when Rabbi Simeon saw Jewish farmers tending the fields. All at once filled with rage, he called out to them angrily, saying, “How dare you waste your time this way? The decree of the Romans is lifted. We can study Torah again! Leave your fields and study!”
The farmers replied, “It is harvest time. We will study later.”
Then Rabbi Simeon shouted to heaven, “Let these fields burn, for the people are doing work when they should be studying Torah.” Wherever the rabbi and his son turned their eyes, the fields burst into flames.
Finally, a voice came out of heaven, saying, “Have you left your cave to destroy My world? It is more important to live by Torah then to study it. Now go back to your cave and study your ways!”
And Rabbi Simeon and his son returned to their cave to study for another twelve months (Shab. 33b)
By this parable, the Talmud shows that Torah should not separate you from everyday life of your community. Indeed, Torah helps you to learn what it means to live fully even as you work. Through studying Torah you learn how business people should conduct themselves, how to deal fairly with everyone, and what obligations you have as either a boss or an employee.
Whether your work involves physical or thinking labor you can be assured that our community needs all the honest work it can get. We need people in all walks of life. A Midrash tells us of the time when Rabbi Yochanan passed a man digging a well? The man looked up and said, “Rabbi, did you know that I am as important as you?
“Why is that?” Rabbi Yochanan asked.
“Because my work is as important to the community as yours is; you tell someone to go to the mikveh to take a ritual bath, but I am the one who provides the water for them!” (Eccl. R. 4:17)
Each one of us depends on hundreds of others each day or our lives. As it is written:
Ben Zoma once a gathering of people on the Temple Mount. He said, “Blessed is HaShem, who has created all these people to serve me.”
He explained: “what a great amount of work Adam had to do before he had bread to eat! He has to plow, to sow, to reap, to bind the sheaves, to thresh and winnow. Then he had to select the ears, to grind them, to sift the flour, to knead, and to bake. At last, he could eat bread. Whereas, I get up each morning and find all these things done for me! (Ber. 58a)
Choosing a job.
All kinds of honest work are worthwhile, but there is no great religious value laboring at something you do not like or are not fit for. Whatever work we do, we should make an avocation of helping others, even if our vocations are designed primarily to help ourselves. Our history and tradition teaches us that no honest work is too lowly. Our parents may want us to be doctors, lawyers or some other professions for a variety of reasons, but we should always view our work as a way to contribute to society.
Some kinds of work are considered important and those who work in these fields are highly paid for their work while others receive little pay for theirs. The Talmud teaches us we must not fall guilty to false pride because of the work we do because all honest work is important if society is to remain healthy and productive.
In ancient times people thought that being a Shepard was among the lowliest of professions. Yet, Moshe and David were shepherds. The Midrash says that it was Moshe’s concern for the stray sheep that made him a fit leader for the Hebrews.
Living Torah #19: Honest and dishonest work
If we have a halakhic view of the world, all work could become K’dosh (Holy).
The rabbis taught that each man is commanded to teach his child a trade, and whoever does not, it is if he has taught him to become a robber. (kid.30b). The question arises are there any honest trades we are not to teach our children? In Eccl. 3:11, it says, “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” It teaches that the Holy One, the Blessed, makes every occupation agreeable in the eyes of those who practice it [B’resheit 43b (Talmud)].
In the eyes of the Halakhic Jew, all honest work is holy work. As the Talmud says, “Great is the work for it honors the worker” (Ned. 49b). Earning our daily bread, making a living, gives meaning to our lives and adds to our personal K’dushah (holiness). It carries its own reward of a salary but also an inner reward of satisfaction.
However, some occupations are not permissible. Some examples include selling illegal drugs, dealing in pornography, or buying through fraud, bribery, or coercion. Ambition for money or power makes some people work in ways that are outside the law. Even if the work is normally permitted, the way they do it may make it un-Jewish and improper. Another lesson the Torah teaches is that you must find work that is honest and honorable.
Honest labor brings you honest rewards. It brings justice to society, instilling a sense of honor in the workaday world. Your work gives you a chance to practice the mitzvot in a very direct and important way. It makes you useful as a member of society and your community. It gives you an opportunity to make the world a better place to live.
Jewish law is concerned with the ethics of work: “Giving an honest day’s work” to your client or employer. For example, if you work for someone all day long the employer must give you regular times to eat, but you must not stop again to eat during your workaday.
As the owner is warned not to rob the poor of their wages and not to delay payment, so the worker is warned not to rob the employer by wasting time, a little here, a little there, and not giving a full day’s service…so to the worker must work with all his powers, as Jacob, our righteous father said (Gen 31:6), “for with all my power, I worked for your father.” Therefore, he received his reward in this world, too, as it is said (Gen 30:43), “and Jacob prospered very, very greatly” (M.T. Hilkhot Sehchirut, 13).
Jacob was successful Rambam says, because he was hones in his work, gave it his full attention, and did it as well as he could.
Cheating: Case Studies
Whether you are a student, in business or in a trade you will encounter many laws, which call for honesty. You would have to give the full measure of the cut of meat. You would have to trim the meat carefully of fat so that people who bought it would not have to buy too much fat. The idea, the=2 0concept is an honest scale is a basic principle of life no matter in what profession you are engaged. Cheating on exams falls within the same concept. If you are preparing for a profession and cheat, you rob your future clients by weighing the scale in your favor when in fact you have not mastered the subject. It is tempting to think that what happens in preparation for an occupation does not really matter, but it does. It sets the tone of the character of the individual person. The rabbis taught different. They underlined the importance of education, the right kind of education that requires individual, honest effort as something to not underestimate. Rabbi Judah the Prince said, “Do not keep children away from school even to help in building the Temple.” Resh Lakish said, “The world stands upon the breath of students” (Shab. 119b). Because schooling is so important, cheating must be taken very seriously.
If in your study you discover that you take longer to grasp something than a colleague does not feel shame or embarrassment. Rambam said, “A student must not feel ashamed on account of his classmates who have understood a subject almost immediately, while it takes him many times to grasp it. If he were to feel embarrassment because of this, he would be attending school without learning anything (M.T. Sefer Hamada, Hilkhot Talmud Torah, 4:5).
We do not learn by copying from others because we fail to understand; moreover, we are thieves, stealing another’s work. This is called genevat da’at, “mental deception.” That is, trying to fool a teacher, employer, or some other authority professing more knowledge than we have about a subject. A careful distinction has to made when using others’ work in preparation of your own. We build on prior thoughts of subjects, but must make it our own by bringing to bear our thoughts and analysis on the subject.
You may also be cheating in another way when you fail to study a subject and simply borrow someone else’s work as your own. You in essence have conspired against your teacher making him/her look foolish. Halakhah makes this a serious offense, for it contains cases in which the teacher is more important than our parents.
[If a person were to seek] his own lost property and that of his father, his own has first place; if his own is that of his teacher, his own has first place, if that of his father and that of his teacher, his teacher’s has first place-for his father did but bring him into this world, but his teacher that taught him wisdom brings him in to the World to Come…. If his father and his teacher were both taken captive, he must ransom his teacher and afterward his father… (B.M. 2:11)
Now we might debate priorities listed here, but it shows how important the discipline of study and acquiring honestly an education, and particularly wisdom, a result of right education is in the Jewish mindset. Whether consciously or ignorantly conspiring to make a teacher look foolish is like trying to make a parent look foolish, and that is a matter of serious offense in Judaism. Our teachers are very much like our parents, in many ways. The word for “teachers” in Hebrew is morim The word for “parents” is horim. Both these words come from the same root Hebrew root. This root has two meanings, “to teach” and “to shoot” (as in aiming as shooting an arrow). Our teachers and parents try to instruct us, and they “aim” us in the right direction, in the direction, that allows us to lead the healthiest, most productive, and most worthwhile lives.
Work should not only be done honestly, but it should be done well. When we experience any product done well we know we have encountered something special and wonderful. We should always take the time and give the effort to produce our work in the best possible manner. Let me illustrate this principle by a Hasidic story.
A rebbe took some of his students to a circus. There was a man walking a tightrope. One of the students asked, “Why is this man risking his life this way?” The rebbe answered, “I do not know why he has chosen this profession. However, I do know this: long as that man is walking that tightrope, he is using his whole mind and soul to concentrate on walking it. If, for one moment, he stopped to worry about the money that he is earning by walking the tightrope, he would lose his balance and fall to his death, only while he concentrates on the work he is doing can he hope to succeed. “
Work honestly, hard and be a light to the world.
Rabbi Tamah Davis-Hart