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"Man Was Born To Labor"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein






Sicha of Harav Aharon Lichtenstein shlit”a


“Man Was Born to Labor”

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish



In God’s blessing to Noach following the Flood, we read:


For as long as the world exists, sowing and reaping and cold and heat and summer and winter and day and night will not cease. (Bereishit 8:22)


The simple meaning of the verse is that the various heavenly bodies, which ceased to follow their natural patterns at the time of the Flood, will never do so again. However, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 58b) derives a completely different lesson from this verse: that a non-Jew who desists from creative labor (melakha) on Shabbat is deserving of death. (The Rishonim explain that this very sharp expression is meant to convey the severity of what the non-Jew thereby transgresses; in terms of practical Halakha, he is not put to death.) The Gemara goes even further and cites the opinion of Ravina, according to whom it is forbidden for a non-Jew to desist completely from any form of labor even on a weekday.


The Gemara is not discussing a non-Jew “resting” in the sense of involving himself in spiritual rejuvenation, nor his awarding any special significance to the days of the week. He is simply forbidden to put a halt to his creative labors. Only Am Yisrael is permitted to cease working in order to study Torah; for a non-Jew, such a halt represents a transgression. This teaching of Chazal speaks eloquently of the great importance that is attached to work and labor – no matter who performs it. However, a Jew is obliged to stop his activity for one day each week in order to be able to engage in Torah – a privilege that is not extended to the other nations of the world.


It would seem that the extraordinary importance that Judaism attaches to work arises first and foremost from the need to develop the world. Indeed, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 24b) teaches that a gambler (literally, “one who plays with dice”) is unfit to give testimony before a court only because he neglects to participate in the development of the world. The Rambam, too, writes that “it is proper for a person only to engage his whole life in words of wisdom and in the development of the world” (Hilkhot Gezela 6:11).


In Avot de-Rabbi Natan (11:1) this is expressed even more sharply:


The Holy One, blessed be He, did not allow His Presence to rest upon Israel until they had performed labor; as it is written, “Let them make Me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.”


Further on, we read:


One who has no work do to – what should he do? If he has a yard that is bare, or a field that is bare, let him go and occupy himself with it, as it is written, “For six days you shall work and you shall perform all of your labor.” What do we learn from the expression “all of your labor”? It comes to teach us that a person who has empty yards or fields should go and occupy himself with them.


To what extent must one work?  The Gemara (Sanhedrin 58b) teaches in the name of Reish Lakish:


What is the meaning of the verse, “One who labors over his land (oved admato) will be satiated with bread” (Mishlei 12:11)? If a person makes himself like a servant (eved) to the land, then he will be satiated with bread; if he does not, then he will not have sufficient bread.


At first glance, this teaching seems to make no sense. Surely a Jew is obligated to be a servant only to God, and to no one and nothing else – as the Gemara itself reiterates in several places (Kiddushin 22b, Bava Kama 116b, Bava Metzia 10a): “They are My servants, and not servants to servants.” How, then, can a person be required to make himself a servant to his land?


It would seem that what this means is not that a person should forsake God and commit himself wholly to the land. Rather, it comes to teach us that one must perform one’s work on the land with the proper commitment and seriousness – at least to the same degree to which we serve God. The demand that a person engage in developing the world is also a demand that he not treat such labor lightly. We are obliged to invest our very best efforts.


On the other hand, it clearly remains the case that “they are My servants, and not servants of servants.” Even if a person invests much time and effort in his work, he must always remember what is most important. His work may occupy most of the hours of his day, but he dare not allow it to become the center of his life. He must not reach a situation where his life revolves around his work and that is the most important part of his life. The center of a person’s life is his service of God, not any other work.


This being the case, the question arises: what is the proper ratio between these two spheres? When must a person engage in words of wisdom and when must he engage in developing the world? How much time should be devoted to each?


This is a very complicated question, because the answer varies from person to person. It is impossible to supply any clear, fixed formula for the proper ratio between work and Torah. The Gemara (Berakhot 32b) grapples with this problem:


Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: Is it possible that a person should plow at the time of plowing, and sow at the time of sowing, and reap at the time of reaping, and thresh at the time of threshing, and winnow at the time of winnowing… what will then become of Torah? Rather, the intention is that when Am Yisrael perform God’s will, their labor is performed by others, and when Am Yisrael do not perform God’s will, they have to perform their labor themselves!

Abaye said: Many people acted in accordance with the teaching of Rabbi Yishmael [who maintained that one should labor in order to support himself, and to study Torah in his remaining time] and they were successful; others acted in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and they were not successful.


Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin notes the Gemara’s emphasis that “many” were not successful – hinting that there are some who are able to conduct themselves in accordance with the teaching of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Even according to the Gemara, then, we still have no clear answer to the question of the proper relationship between work and Torah study.


Nevertheless, it is important to be aware of the factors that must be taken into consideration when considering this question. A person should not choose a profession based solely on financial considerations, or his personal interests, or the intellectual or organizational challenge that the profession presents – although such considerations are unquestionably important. It is also important to consider to what extent the choice of a particular profession will allow one enough time to engage in Torah. Admittedly, the pull towards work is very strong today, stronger than it was in the past. On the other hand, today one is required to work less than he would have to in the past in order to maintain a reasonable level of existence. Therefore, even in today’s culture it is certainly possible to find enough time to engage in Torah.


Unquestionably, there is great importance to work and the development of the world. However, each of us is also meant to invest effort in finding the correct balance between work and Torah study. With God’s help, we will be successful.


(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat Parashat Noach 5763 [2002].)