Earning a Living

It goes without saying that self-imposed unemployment and poverty is completely unacceptable from the perspective of Torah thought and halacha.[1] This is true even if one wishes to devote one’s time exclusively to the study of Torah.[2] Indeed, a person is obligated to secure for himself gainful employment and to ensure that he does not become dependent on charity.[3] We are taught that it is better to hire oneself out to do menial labor rather than to rely on charity.[4]  God Himself tells us that man is to live by "the sweat of his brow."[5]

Even the greatest sages of all time complemented their rabbinic positions with professional careers in order to provide for their families.[6] There were those who were woodchoppers,[7] water carriers,[8] and blacksmiths.[9] We are taught that Torah study, combined with earning a living, ensures a person's moral well-being.[10] One should love work and always seek to be employed.[11] As one great contemporary halachic authority once said, "From a Torah perspective, work is sacred -- it is building and forging a partnership with God in the work of creation."[12] God only rested His Divine Presence upon the Jewish people once they began to engage in work.[13]

An employee is required to faithfully perform all the duties that are expected of him by his employer. King David praises those who perform their work faithfully and asserts that they merit "to dwell in the tent of God."[14] It is highly questionable whether it is permissible to engage in social conversations and other personal matters during work hours.[15] Teachers should be especially diligent not to interrupt or be interrupted from their important work.[16]

It is recommended to consider following in the professional footsteps of one’s parents.[17] Indeed, parents are obligated to ensure that their children are trained and qualified for some kind of employment.[18] Parents who ignore this responsibility will be punished.[19]The merits that one can arouse through hard work are greater than the merits of the mitzvot of one’s ancestors.[20]

Money which one earns from one’s employment is considered to be a reward-of-sorts from God,[21] and must be used for noble purposes.[22] The Talmud tells us how to manage our financial portfolios in order to ensure maximum returns: diversify.[23] We are also taught that engaging in our professional pursuits with dignity and honesty is conducive to Divine assistance and financial security.[24]

It goes without saying that one must avoid any profession that promotes dishonesty, immorality, and arrogance.[25] It also appears that becoming a donkey driver, sailor, or even a storekeeper is not recommended.[26] Construction is said to be a problematic profession.[27] A man is advised not to take a job in which he will be constantly surrounded by women.[28] Consequently, jewelers, perfume salesmen, and hairdressers may be prone to bad character.[29] One who is happy and successful at his current job should not quit it for some other job. This is true even if the other job offers more money, is easier, or more prestigious.[30]

It is forbidden to take on additional employment, such as a "night job," if it will affect one's performance at one’s primary place of employment.[31] Not eating properly is also forbidden.[32] As such, one may not follow a diet that can make one weak or ill, and by extension, render one unable to perform at one's best.[33] One is obligated to show up on time to work and only leave when agreed upon.[34] It is best not to commit to a job for more than three years at a time.[35]

A Jew is required to give his employer his absolute best, as Yaakov Avinu said, "With all my might I worked for your father."[36] An employer is encouraged to treat his employees beyond the letter of the law even if it means taking a loss.[37] An employer must provide his employees with food if that is common practice.[38] One must be sure to pay one's employees on time and at the agreed upon intervals.[39]

One who takes his work seriously and performs it faithfully brings honor upon himself.[40] An employee is often permitted to recite a shortened version of certain prayers in order not to take time away from his job.[41] Nevertheless, common custom nowadays is for employers to allow their employees to recite all the standard prayers as normal. The Rambam writes that one should work for about eight hours a day.[42] Our sages teach that one who has nothing to do should take up gardening.[43] We are told that one of the first questions one will be asked in Heaven is whether one was honest in business.[44]

[1] Ketubot 59b.

[2] Rambam, Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:10.

[3] OC 156.

[4] Bava Batra 110; Pesachim 113a.

[5] Bereishit 3:19.

[6] Yoma 35b; Nidda 24b; Teshuvot Rashi 382.

[7] Rambam, Avot 4:7. See also Yoma 36b.

[8] Ketubot 105a

[9] Berachot 28b.

[10] Avot 2:2.

[11] Avot 1:10.

[12] Aseh Lecha Rav 2:64.

[13] Avot D’rabbi Natan 31.

[14] Tehillim 15:1-2.

[15] Ta'anit 23b.

[16] Shulchan Aruch Harav, Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:11; Sefer Chassidim 310.

[17] Tosefta, Bava Metzia 4:7;Erchin 16b, Maharsha.

[18] Kiddushin 30b.

[19] Kaf Hachaim 21:1.

[20] Midrash Rabba, Bereishit 72:12; Tanchuma, Vayeitzei 13.

[21] Ta’anit 9a.

[22] Eruvin 68a.

[23] Bava Metzia 42a.

[24] Nidda 70b.

[25] Sefer Chassidim 553.

[26] Kiddushin 82a.

[27] Sota 11a; Midrash Rabba, Shemot 1:10.

[28] Kiddushin 82a.

[29] Kiddushin 82a.

[30] Kaf Hachaim 21:4.

[31] Yerushalmi, Demai 3:1.

[32] Yerushalmi, Demai 3:1.

[33] Mishpetei Hatorah 1:49.

[34] Rambam, Hilchot Sechirut 13:7.

[35] Rema, CM 333:3.

[36] Tana D’vei Eliyahu Rabba 15; Rambam, Hilchot Sechirut 13:11.

[37] Bava Metzia 83a.

[38] Mishna, Bava Metzia 7:1.

[39] Vayikra 19:13; Bava Metzia 112a.

[40] Nedarim 49b.

[41] Berachot 17a, 46a.

[42] Rambam, Hilchot Deot 4:4.

[43] Avot D’rabbi Natan 10; Midrash Tehillim 23:3.

[44] Shabbat 31a.