Project Genesis

Family and Relationships

The Spiritual Dimension of Work

Question: I work with undergraduate students who are in the process of finding their first professional job after graduating college. One often unarticulated, but clearly present,  issue for them is what one might call the spiritual dimension of work e.g. what it  is all about besides a paycheck. Can you point me in the direction of any good books or sources on Jewish perceptions of the meaning of work or the spiritual value of work? Thank you.

Answer: The Torah and the Talmud, with their commentaries, discuss the spiritual value of work in many places. Here are just a few:

Tractate Avot 1:10 says, “Love work..” The Commentary of the Tosfos Yom Tov points out that it says it’s the work that you should love and not the money. Even if you are independently wealthy you should still seek out a profession as the Talmud says in Ketubot 59b, “Inactivity leads to idiocy.” As human beings we must keep ourselves fulfilled, for otherwise our minds will atrophy.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on the Prayer Book, writes that this Avot 1:10 is counseling us to preserve our personal independence. When we are dependent we may do things that coincide with the views of those who support us and have more power than us. Work allows us to live by our own principles. This is based on the verse from Psalms 128:2,”When you eat the labor of your hands, you are praiseworthy, and it is well with you.” One is best off eating the labor of their own hands. In the Grace After Meals we say, “Please G-d, let us not be in need of the presents from flesh and blood.” We want our sustenance to be a direct result of our relationship with the Almighty (See below). Similarly, in Proverbs 15:27 King Solomon writes, “One who hates gifts shall live.” Also see the Talmud in Berachot 8a on the verse from Psalms 128:2 above.

When Laban attempted to stop Jacob and his family from leaving him, after Jacob had worked fourteen years for him, Jacob responded (Genesis 31:42), “G-d saw my wretchedness and the toil of my hands, so He admonished you last night.” The Midrash Tanchuma (Vayeitzai 13) comments, “This teaches us that a person shouldn’t say, “I will eat and drink, and see the good. I will not make an effort and from heaven they will have mercy.” When we show G-d that we are using the talents that He gave us, and not merely excusing ourselves and abusing His generosity to us, we are rewarded with His infinite kindness. The Midrash continues, “A man must toil and work with his two hands and the Holy One, Blessed is He, sends His blessing.”

Some other spiritual aspects to work – we sanctify G-d’s name when people in the professional world see the refinement that comes from a person who follows the Torah. Also, we gain a greater understanding of G-d’s world. If we make scientific discoveries we see the wisdom of the Creator, but even outside the laboratory we discover the wisdom G-d implanted in humanity. Finally, when we work a full week we have greater appreciation for the Sabbath, the Day of Rest.

If you would like to look into this further there are many commentaries on the piece in Tractate Avot quoted above. Some others in Avot are 2:2, and 3:21 (or 17 in some editions). I would suggest the Yalkut Me’am Loez on Avot, an anthology, which is also available in English.

If you have any more questions I’ll be glad to help, and good luck with your job counseling – the Divine service of helping our fellow human beings.

With Best Wishes,
Rabbi Mordechai Dixler

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