The world of work is changing and, especially given the pandemic, many people face an uncertain future. Judaism seems a cerebral tradition, and the knowledge economy well suited to a bookish people. Yet the Talmudic rabbis had jobs involving their hands and our tradition has a lot to say about all types of labor. In this uneasy age, when “menial” jobs are newly understood as essential work, it is worth reminding ourselves of Judaism’s understanding of work.
“Six days shall you work,” says the commandment concerning the Shabbat. Work is as essential to human dignity as resting from work. Human beings are created in part for work; God places Adam and Eve in the garden “to keep and tend it.” Labor, say the rabbis, honors the person engaged in it (B. Nedarim 49b).
There are many regulations about the dignity and proper treatment of workers. The Talmud tells a story of two porters who accidentally broke the wine barrel they’d been carrying. The employer took their cloaks as compensation. When the judge ordered him to return them, the employer asked, “Is that the law?” The judge answered by quoting Proverbs: “So you may walk in the way of the good” and, when told the men were hungry and poor, ordered their wages paid as well. When the employer again asked, “Is that the law?” the judge quoted the end of the verse, “And keep to the paths of the just” (Prov. 2:20).
To learn more about the future of work, its problems and possibilities, see a Working Nation, a nonprofit campaign seeking solutions to the looming unemployment crisis.