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Sometimes my job gets in the way of my observance of Jewish holidays. I often need to work on Saturdays or late on Fridays, inhibiting my ability to attend synagogue on Shabbat. Sometimes I am required to work on other holidays as well.

I have heard mixed things about this from other Jews:

  • Some say that it is acceptable to "do what I can" and I should observe as often as practicable.
  • Others have told me Judaism is "all or nothing" -- that it is a religion of strict rules -- and that I should attend synagogue despite important obligations like working to provide for my family.

I'm sure there are different philosophies within Judaism that support either point, but which is the prevailing view? Is there any Judaic text that can support either position?

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Hi JSW189 and welcome to Mi Yodeya. Thanks for bringing your question here. – user2110 Apr 17 '13 at 13:00
If you are asking about halacha, "going to temple" is not really a part of Shabbat observance. There is an obligation to pray together with 10 men every day, 3 times a day, not especially on Shabbat. Also it's important to note that it's better to pray alone at home than to go to temple / synagogue in a way that violates Shabbat, for example by driving. – Desert Star Apr 17 '13 at 15:43
@DesertStar That's not necessarily true. Going to pray with a community might be part of Shabbat and Holidays' nature of Mikra Kodesh (see Ramban to Vayikra 23). – Double AA Apr 17 '13 at 17:41
I don't know the source, but it should be noted that for example, if someone turned a light switch on or of on Shabbat by mistake he's not exempt of continuing to keep Shabbat that week. That is, if someone failed to keep a mitzvah he's still required to keep observing the rest or same one on a separate opportunity. – frozenkoi Apr 17 '13 at 22:14
@frozenkoi Welcome to Mi Yodeya and thank you for adding that accurate and relevant point! Perhaps Rambam Shegagot Chapter 7 can serve as a source. – Double AA Apr 17 '13 at 23:51
up vote 21 down vote accepted

It's not either/or but "both, and".

Judaism has a system of rules, halacha, by which we are to live our lives. Halacha is not negotiable, so that might sound like "all or nothing". Instead, think of it as what you aspire to, even if it's not what you currently do. Halacha calls on you to do all that you can, but also recognizes that all humans are imperfect and does not hold one failure against us in other areas.

As Dan noted, there are conditions where halacha itself provides for prioritization, but this is built into the halachic system, not something that individuals get to decide. If you think your individual circumstances call for a leniency on any matter of halacha, you should consult your rabbi for guidance. Your rabbi is in a position to evaluate the demands of halacha, your financial situation, your family situation, where you currently are in your growth in torah, and so on, and advise you about your job.

When we face barriers to fulfilling the law we should be striving to remove them. In your case, your job currently requires you to work on Shabbat. Can you do anything about that? Can you trade shifts with somebody, even if it means your new shift will be less convenient? Can you find a new job that doesn't have this requirement? If you can make either of those changes, so that you can remain employed and also keep Shabbat, Jewish tradition calls on you to do so. Remove the barrier by changing jobs, rather than saying "there's a barrier and I can't get past it".

I'm not trying to give you personal advice (that's not what Stack Exchange is for) but rather to illustrate an approach. Yes, Judaism has rules, and when you violate them you are sinning. Yes, Judaism has some affordances for sufficiently-severe circumstances (and for this you should consult your rabbi). And yes, Judaism calls on you to take action yourself where you can to improve the situation instead of waiting for things to get better on their own.

And, all that said, if what you're asking is "if I can't do all of it should I do any of it?", the answer is yes. Every mitzvah you do counts in your merit; it is better to violate Shabbat and still follow other mitzvot than to say "well, if I can't do Shabbat I'll just punt". Doing a mitzvah can lead you to do another; that's a good thing. As it says in Pirke Avot (4:2): mitzvah goreret mitzvah, aveirah goreret aveirah -- one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, one transgression leads to another transgression.

(I realize that this answer is largely lacking in sources.)

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You final paragraph, which, of your answer, most directly addresses the question, is excellent. The asker did ask for sources, though. And the rest of your answer is good, too, but can be misread to imply that if the asker can't trade shifts now then Judaism will allow him to work on the sabbath. +1, though. – msh210 Apr 17 '13 at 15:09
@msh210, thanks. I'll think about ways to rework this later. Judaism doesn't permit him to violate Shabbat, but it also doesn't say "Shabbat violater? then we're done". I'm trying to show that the system allows for prioritization but that people don't get to do that. (Also trying to providde guidance to improve his situation, e.g. shift change.) Sorry for the confusion. – Monica Cellio Apr 17 '13 at 15:11
One final point: According to Jewish law, one is required to sacrifice every thing (except life) for any Biblical obligation. This would certainly apply to one's employment. Thus, from the perspective of halacha, there is no real question that one is obligated to refuse to work on Shabbos even if this means you will lose your job. (And this has happened to innumerable Jews over the years.) That being said, you are certainly correct that the fact that one fails to be fully in compliance with halacha in one or more areas does not diminish the value of observance in other areas. – LazerA Apr 17 '13 at 16:43
@LazerA One is required to sacrifice everything (except life) for any Biblical prohibition. For positive injunctions, things get more complicated, but a good general rule is one should give up only up to one fifth of his money to fulfill the injunction. – Double AA Apr 17 '13 at 17:43
Thank you everyone for the helpful answer and comments! It will likely be at least another year or so until I can change jobs, but I will DEFINITELY be taking the likelihood of Saturday work into account when choosing my next job. – JSW189 Apr 19 '13 at 2:17

Judaism is indeed a religion with a large number of rules, but it is certainly not "all or nothing." On one hand, the mitzvot are not considered to be simply guidelines. They are strict rules that every Jew should be careful to follow. So, in your example, Judaism says that you should not go to work on Shabbat. We have faith that we will be able to care for our families even if we do not work on Shabbat or holidays (and there are a large number of observant Jews with important jobs who show that this is possible).

On the other hand, the fact that someone does not keep one particular mitzvah does not mean that he should not do the other mitzvahs. Every mitzvah that a Jew does is a good thing. The fact that one does not observe one particular mitzvah does not mean that it is not worth it for him to do another one.

In Maimonides' "Hilchot Teshuva", he writes:

"A person should always view himself as being half meritorious and half guilty [of sins]. Similarly, [one should view] the entire world -- half meritorious and half guilty... If he does one mitzvah, he [has the potential to favorably] tip the scales of himself and the entire world, and he brings for himself and all the world salvation and deliverance!"

From this, we can see that everybody sins sometimes. Everybody fails to keep some of the mitzvot. But this does not mean that we should stop observing them. On the contrary, doing even one mitzvah can make a huge difference!

So it's not "do what I can" in the way that you describe it, but it is also not "all or nothing."

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Oops, I was adding my final paragraph while you were writing this answer. I wsan't trying to poach. – Monica Cellio Apr 17 '13 at 14:58
@MonicaCellio, I would never suspect you of that. – Daniel Apr 17 '13 at 15:01
Thank you. Even if you wouldn't, some future reader might. Best to be clear. (And good answer, which I meant to say before!) – Monica Cellio Apr 17 '13 at 15:02
@LazerA One can argue for a stronger obligation to attend synagogue on Shabbat, because of Torah reading, Musaf, and Mikra Kodesh (cf Ramban Vayikra 23). – Double AA Apr 17 '13 at 17:37
This is a good answer. Thanks for adding the Rambam. – Monica Cellio Apr 17 '13 at 21:17

Don't forget that Kohelet said "For there isn't a righteous person on earth who does only good and never sins". Do as much as you can and always strive to do better. If not being able to keep Shabbat properly upsets you enough, you will find another job that enables you to keep Shabbat, and so on for all the rest. I heard once "How can a Tzaddik sin?" - and the answer was that for a Tzadik, if his thoughts are not perfect - that his his sin. Try to add one thing better each week.

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Both answers you received are correct. Judaism is a religion of laws and the goal is for each person to follow the rules completely. But that "completely" is changeable. It is well established that in order to save a life, one may push aside other laws including the sabbath. If Judaism were purely "all or nothing" then that could not be the case -- one would have to follow sabbatical law regardless. We know that rabbinic law explains a variety of opinions about observance, some more lenient than others. So the "all or none" is not so clear cut.

However, Judaism IS a religion with rules and laws and codes of behavior and the exceptions are as much functions of application of rules and not individual choices based on simple practicality. To know if one may eat on a fast day, one doesn't decide "but I'm really hungry and this fast doesn't speak to me." One has to consult experts to know if the exigent circumstances are really exigent.

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I think it's important to note that when we push aside an observance in consideration of a particular exigency, we are not suspending Judaism or observing it incompletely. The consideration for the exigency is built-in; for example, preserving life is a paramount Jewish value, and deference to it is built-in to the laws of the Sabbath. ... This answer would be more valuable if it quoted sources, as requested in the question. – Isaac Moses Apr 17 '13 at 14:40

R' Ovadia Yosef in Yabia Omer 6, Y.D. 14, was asked by a religious girls school if it was better to enforce a dresscode which prohibited short skirts or pants, as the school had determined they would only be able to eliminate one. In his response, he cites many examples, starting from the Talmud, of cases in which decisions are made between the lesser of two evils. The explicit underlying principle is that if you can't cut out all prohibitions, at least get rid of what you can.

Sotah 48a:

אמר רב יוסף זמרי גברי ועני נשי פריצותא זמרי נשי ועני גברי כאש בנעורת למאי נפקא מינה לבטולי הא מקמי הא

Men singing and women answering is inappropriate. Women singing and men answering is fire to flax chips. What's it matter? To nullify one before the other


אם אין שומעין לנו לבטל את שניהם נקדים לבטל את זה שהוא כאש בנעורת

If they won't listen to us to nullify both, we'll give priority to nullifying this one which is like fire...

Avoda Zara 16a:

אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל של בית רבי היו מקריבין שור של פטם ביום אידם חסר ד' ריבבן שאין מקריבין אותו היום אלא למחר חסר ד' ריבבן שאין מקריבין אותו חי אלא שחוט חסר ד' ריבבן שאין מקריבין אותו כל עיקר

Some of Rebbi's household would give a fattened ox on their holiday. Rebbe spent forty thousand to get them to push it off to the next day. He spent another forty thousand to get them to give it slaughtered. He spent another forty thousand to get them to stop it altogether.


אלא למחר - ולמיעקר פורתא מיכוין

To the next day - He intended to partially uproot it

Sefer Chasidim 176 records the question of someone who felt that the only way he could restrain himself from cohabiting with a niddah was through masturbation, and Sefer Chasidim answered that if he is unable to retrain himself otherwise, then it is preferable to engage in "wasting seed." (However, he will need atonement for it.)

Rashba Responsa 5:238 writes that in order to remove stumbling blocks from the people, the Sage needs to start with the most stringent and then move to the more lenient infractions, and not to remove everything all at once.

Chagiga 16a:

ר' אילעאי אומר אם רואה אדם שיצרו מתגבר עליו ילך למקום שאין מכירין אותו וילבש שחורים ויתעטף שחורים ויעשה מה שלבו חפץ ואל יחלל שם שמים בפרהסיא

If a person sees his inclination overpowering him, he should go to a place where they don't recognize him, dress in black, and wrap himself in black, and then do what he desires, and not publicly desecrate Hashem's name.

Tosefos s.v. ויעשה:

לגמרי משמע דמוטב לו לאדם שיעשה חפצו בסתר ולא בפרהסיא

He entirely does what he wants (i.e. he actually carries it out), as it is better to follow his desires in private and not in public.

A student of R' Noach Weinberg told me that he often said that the Torah forbids relations with one's father, even though all homosexual relations are prohibited, as if to say, "if you're going to do a homosexual act, at least not with your father."

The clear consensus of Jewish sources is that Judaism is not all or nothing.

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Where does the Torah forbid relations with one's father? – Double AA Jan 13 '15 at 23:52
@DoubleAA Vayikra 18:7 according to the opinion of the Rabbanan cited on Sanhedrin 54a - ורבנן ערות אביך ממש – Y ez Jan 14 '15 at 3:51
And we hold that way apparently hebrewbooks.org/… – Double AA Jan 14 '15 at 3:55

Judaism is not a religion although it has religious beliefs and practices. Judaism is both being part of an ethnic tribe (your Jewish if your mother is) as well as a complete way of life (actions defined by halacha). As far as approach to mitzvas: every mitzvah we do is a positive. kedushah is stronger than klippah. In this way every action we make towards strengthening our relation with G-d Almighty is good regardless of mistakes or other actions we make. It can certainly be a difficult decision to make to no longer work on shabbos and yom tov. here is an article that may help with your dilemma... http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/610014/jewish/I-have-a-great-job-but-it-requires-me-to-work-on-Shabbat.htm

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