This is a very personal question and open ended question, and I am not sure if it is really right to give this much personal context. But I believe it is something that most people experience.

I have lived in 4 countries. And their work ethic commonly seems mutually unnatural and immoral. I believe Jewish work ethic is ideally one where workers are not supposed to complain, you work incredibly hard, but not on Sabbath, you work smart, building wealth is admirable, you are always honest in your dealings, and the work is to help bring about mitzvot and should not violate any of them, but work for the sake of work is not a Jewish thing. But I don't think there is really a country that follows Jewish work ethic.

I am an American that has lived overseas for awhile. And confronting the rise and grind attitude here, where I have heard colleagues brag about struggling to not be able to afford medical treatment and stratification is an accepted norm and to not question about anything that keeps stratification in place. For example, hearing aggressive responses like, "It is their fault for living in Cahokia that their children have a bad education." But when I lived in China, while people might work longer hours and still struggle to get ahead, it is not a badge of honor like in America. Rich people in China will actually dress up in pajamas to brag about not having to work. And there is a talk of common prosperity even though it is elusive because of rampant corruption in China. There is a similar phenomena in Thailand, albeit the infrastructure and access to quality education is dismal there compared to China. And there is a common belief that where you are in life is your fault because of a past life. Also in Thailand, unlike in China, there is often a common attitude of just accepting things the way they are, don't be a hero and try to improve the world around you but work is most certainly not the center of one's life like in America. And finally, in South Korea, I would meet so many students and employees that were uncontrollably suicidal. I got fired from a position for telling a student (10 year old girl) in South Korea that she should take a break from the Hagwon after she started cutting herself . And the manager at that Hagwon would always brag about how much stress she had. None of these seems like Torah workplace ideals.

When I study the Torah, I always get this deep sense to get where G-d wants us to follow Him and it is supposed to bring about a prosperity for everyone. Like the world is enough, all life is valued and to be cherished, and any scarcity is artificial due to humans.

But at the same time, complaining seems frowned upon by the Torah. An example about the Hebrews complaining about the manna. And I would argue, there are many times in life it seems that it is best to just suck it up and accept things until you get somewhere better.

Currently, there are a lot of strikes taking place in America, and I am trying to figure out a Jewish way of thinking about what is going on and how to cope with studying the Torah and living with what we have now. And is unionizing acceptable since there is a sense of complaining?

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    And the Exodus does not seem like a clear case of supporting unionizing. Because we all just left. I don't think Moses used the plagues to renegotiate working conditions. And there is even a mitzvah against settling down in Egypt.
    – Teg Louis
    Jul 25, 2023 at 18:48
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    Unionizing is not necessarily a sense of complaining. Ideally, it's about organizing together to protect each other's mutual interests. Rabbi Moses Feinstein, a great contemporary Talmudic scholar, expressed unequivocal support for the freedom to unionize and the freedom to strike (Igrot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat, part I, no. 58) hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=918&pgnum=108 Jul 25, 2023 at 20:55

2 Answers 2


We do not glorify poverty, but we do view work as ennobling. G-d could have poof! given the people a Tabernacle in the desert, but the process of everyone working together to build one (and it was nice, but its dimensions were eminently doable) helped the people cohere, and start thinking of themselves as a people.

The "how" matters.

The late Rabbi Aaron Lichteinstein notes that when the Bible describes Jewish projects, we hear a lot about the "how" -- for instance, the diplomacy and labor draft that Solomon used to build the First Temple. In contrast, when the Persian emperor throws a massive bash at the beginning of the Book of Esther, we just hear about luxury upon luxury appearing piled on high, royalty doesn't care how it got there... the idea was that this notion is (and should be) foreign to us.

The Talmud describes how in a typical marital arrangement 1800 years ago, the husband would provide for the wife, while she was expected to do certain labor in the house. "What if she's so rich that she brought her own staff to do all the household work?" Doing nothing is not good, mentally or spiritually. One opinion there is that she needs hobbies; the other is that she still should at least do some wool spinning.

The Torah speaks in terms of obligations, not rights. An employer is prohibited from paying his employees late, or restricting his harvesters from eating some on the job, and the Talmud in fact has a whole chapter dedicated to an employer's obligations to his workers.

Sometimes the Talmud will conclude -- "whatever the norm is for that industry in that location." Which leaves a lot of leeway, and may therefore vary by locale today too.

So while "let's complain our way out of any work at all" isn't right, an exploitative employer is also not right. At which point it's reasonable for the employee to speak up. They recently found a First Temple era Hebrew letter from some worker to the local mayor/governor -- "I did a good job working the field; ask any of the other workers. But the owner claims I didn't, and took my coat; I want my coat back!"

Of course, one person's "plea for justice against exploitation" is another person's "entitled whining." That's why mediation, or having an outside authority make a call, is critical. A rabbinic group like the Beth Din of America will routinely hear civil cases of employment obligations. (Even synagogues and religious schools will routinely face claims about what's owed to their staff; bringing such a suit before a proper rabbinic panel is considered perfectly reasonable, provided they go through the right channels.)

(And, of course, if an employer gives so much to the staff that the employer goes bankrupt, who's being helped? But that's a consideration for the experts.)

If teachers in a religious school have not been paid for two months, are they allowed to go on strike? It's a serious and difficult question; the answer can't simply be "oh you should just work hard and stop whining."

In the mid-20th Century, several of the greatest authorities in America on Jewish law were Russian-born; they tended to be sympathetic to unions and their ability to strike (nonviolently) for reasonable causes. But there's no one-size-fits-all.

In conclusion -- we are the People of the Book ... and we have a whole lot of books about this stuff!

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    "Doing nothing is not good, mentally or spiritually." Indeed. When our Maker made the first man, He gave him work to do.
    – EvilSnack
    Jul 26, 2023 at 19:01
  • Do you have a link or citation for the letter? I want to read it.
    – Teg Louis
    Jul 26, 2023 at 23:05
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    @TegLouis aish.com/…
    – Vicky
    Jul 27, 2023 at 10:51
  • I read it, that is probably one of the coolest articles I have ever read in my life. It is so interesting. And I feel like my question is answered now. Thank you!
    – Teg Louis
    Jul 27, 2023 at 13:47
  • @Vicky thanks, I'll add the link into the answer.
    – Shalom
    Jul 28, 2023 at 13:18

Summary: there is slight theological support towards the concept of a union but nothing really concrete.

Most orthodox Jews today (not necessarily the enlightenment ones who hang out on this forum) are politically 'right' and view the labor movement as communist, anti semitic and anti Zionist.

In the early part of the 20th century, many immigrant Jews suffered from bad employers who would not let them observe Shabbat or try to stir antisemitism to distract workers from the actual controllers of their poor conditions.Many Jews, including the founders of the state of Israel were part of the labor movement. But this is a circumstantial thing, not part of the religion.

On purely religious terms, unionizing is reflected in our religion. Forming a minyan, a zimmun, or a group of 600k makes our prayers more impactful. We are collectively bargaining for rain.

  • 1
    That is a good summary. It makes me wonder why it isn't so concrete. But I am trying to think would they even be possible a long time ago. Pastoral/semi nomic people don't really need to unionize. They are free as it gets. And slaves couldn't unionize. Maybe the idea of unions is necessarily not that old. The history of labor is so interesting.
    – Teg Louis
    Jul 26, 2023 at 16:04
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    Possible typo: should "bad employees" be "bad employers"?
    – psmears
    Jul 26, 2023 at 16:16
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    @psmears thank you. Stack exchange is owned by a very anti union company and they have code to shift blame on to the workers. Corrected Jul 26, 2023 at 16:26
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    @ClintEastwood: Haha!
    – psmears
    Jul 26, 2023 at 20:31

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