What is the mainline Jewish view of "work"?

(1) Work is an just an option for those who have enough money to live on. The Torah may say "Six days shall you labor and do all your work", but none of the Sources or commentators interpret this as a commandment to work for six days. (It's just a preamble for the commandment of Shabbat.) Work is, however, encouraged. The Mishna says simply: "Love work -- Ehav et hamlakhah." [Pirkei Avot 1:10]

(2) Work is a religious obligation. The Rambam says [Mishneh Torah, Laws of Torah Study 3:10-11]:

Anyone... who makes up his mind to study Torah and not work, but live on charity, profanes the name of God, disgraces the Torah, obscures the light of religion, causes harm to himself, and deprives himself of life in the World to Come; for it is forbidden to derive temporal advantage from the words of the Torah [such as being supported by them] … The end of such a person will be that he will rob his fellow man.

[On the other hand,] anyone who supports himself by the work of his hands possesses a great virtue … He will attain all the glory and happiness of both this world and the World to Come, as [the psalmist] wrote: "When you eat the fruit of the labor of your hands, you shall be happy and it shall be well with you." [Psalms 128:2]

(3) Work is punishment for not being observant enough. The Mechilta [at Ki Tisa] says:

One verse says "In six days work shall be done" [passive voice] [Ex. 31:15, Ex. 35:2, Lev. 23:3] and another says, "Six days shall you work and do all your work" [active voice] [Ex. 20:9, Ex. 34:21, Deut. 5:13] . How can both be true?

It means that when [Israel] does not do the will of God, they will do their work themselves, and when Israel is doing the will of God, their work will be done by others, as it is written:

And strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, and the sons of the alien shall be your plowmen and tend your vineyards. But you shall be named the Priests of the Lord. Men shall call you the Ministers of our God; you shall eat the wealth of the nations, and in their riches you shall glory. [Isaiah 61:5]

(4) Work is a necessary evil. Derived from combining (1) and (3).

Question: Is working for a living an option, an obligation, punishment, or an evil? (It can't be all of them.)

  • 2
    It could be all of them - it could be different things for different people.
    – DonielF
    Jun 13, 2019 at 17:36
  • @DonielF -- Not really. When "commandments" are involved, some "people" may be right and others wrong. Jun 13, 2019 at 17:39
  • 1
    Rambam you quoted in (2) only considers it an obligation if the alternative is subsisting on charity, but not if one has enough to live on without working. So it doesn't contradict (1).
    – Jay
    Jun 13, 2019 at 17:46
  • 1
    Taking all your points and inferences at face value, why can't they all be valid opinions? Mishna says X, Rambam says Y, Mechilta says Z. Wouldn't be the first time we had multiple opinions for a single issue. Jun 13, 2019 at 17:54
  • 1
    Re: the Mishnah in Avot you quote: The full statement is "'Ehov et ha-Melakhah, u-Sna et ha-Rabanut, ve-al Titvada la-Reshut". In that context, it would seem that loving work is meant in contradistinction from seeking positions of ruling others, or getting [personally] close to the authorities, rather than a simple statement of preference of working.
    – Tamir Evan
    Jun 14, 2019 at 3:25

2 Answers 2


(5) R Sheishes (Sanhesrin 24b) says that a gambler cannot testify because eino oseiq beyishuvo shel olam -- he isn't busy with domesticating the universe. (Terrible translation, I know.) The Rambam rules accordingly in Eidus 10:4 and Gezeilah vaAveidah 6:11. In the latter, he ends, "שֶׁאֵין רָאוּי לְאָדָם שֶׁיַּעֲסֹק כָּל יָמָיו אֶלָּא בְּדִבְרֵי חָכְמָה וּבְיִשּׁוּבוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם: -- it is not worthy for a person to be busy all his days with anything but wisdom and domesticating the universe." See also the Tur (CM 34:25), the Beis Yoseif (YD 228:15) and elsewhere.

(6) Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi would say (Avos 2:2) "יָפֶה תַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה עִם דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, שֶׁיְּגִיעַת שְׁנֵיהֶם מְשַׁכַּחַת עָוֹן -- Torah study combined with a worldly occupation is beautiful, because toiling in both of them drives sin from one's mind."

(7) To buttress (3), note that Hashem was "Angry" (as it were) and punishing Adam when He said (Bereishis 3:19) "בְּזֵעַ֤ת אַפֶּ֙יךָ֙ תֹּ֣אכַל לֶ֔חֶם -- by the sweat of your brow you will be able to eat bread."

(7b) Although His initial "Intent" before the fruit was "וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ׃ -- and He placed him in the Garden of Eden

But I don't see you asking a question as much as stating the facts.

The Torah is telling us working for a living is a mixed bag, it has its pluses and its minuses. And whether it's a good thing or not depends on your abilities, your propensities, your desires, your middos and your situation.

Life is messy. Sometimes there is no tying conflicting threads into a neat bow.

  • +1. Although a little disappointed that you’re not going to attempt a Soloveitchikian dialectic.
    – Joel K
    Jun 14, 2019 at 14:31
  • Why would I reduce the number of issues to two? Of the people you know who enjoy lomdus, I'm potentially the least Brisker! Jun 14, 2019 at 15:22
  • @Micha there's no such thing as a three way Chakira. Just a two way Chakira with one side having a sub Chakira.
    – Double AA
    Jun 14, 2019 at 15:39
  • Come over to R Shimon’s team. Here you learn there aren’t only chaqiros and chiluqim, but also hitztarfus. Jun 14, 2019 at 16:07
  • You can have as many titles as you want but you can always subdivide a set of multiple distinct options into exactly two groups, and then recur. If you're stuck at a set of three options then by logical necessity you haven't finished the analysis
    – Double AA
    Jun 14, 2019 at 17:51

What's a pillow? It might be good for many things and bad for others. It all depends on its uses because it's only a TOOL.

Work is not a goal to attain on its own, neither it is a punishment, it is a tool we use to do good or bad things. We can use it to support ourselves, our families, kids, to let us learn Torah is the peace of mind or to drown in it and forgot the Mitzvos in the constant pursuit of money and pleasures.

But wait, that's not all. Kaballicaly, the purpose of this world is (among the others) that G-d desired there to be a dwelling for him in the Earthy world. If you notice most of the Miztvos have physical implementations of actually doing something in this world, and some simple Mitzvos (like פרו ורבו) may imply years of hard parenting. Therefore, contrary to the common perception of the physical as something that "slows us down" or "make us fail", its goal is to let us elevate it to the level of spiritual, so to say. Like sex I mentioned.

That's why a Nazir is called a sinner, as he tries to distance himself from the physical world while G-d wants the opposite - dealing with the physical and sanctifying it. And that's why Chofetz Haim kept his shop. And that's what the Mishnah in Avos says "חכמתו מרובה ממעשיו".

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