Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home


In the Bible and Apocrypha

The Bible regards labor as human destiny and an aspect of the order of heaven and earth and all therein. According to Genesis 2:5, a condition of the creation of plant life was the presence of a human being to cultivate it; Adam's role was to till and keep the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15). Similarly, the visions of the prophets take the continuation of human labor for granted (cf. Isa. 2:4, "… into plowshares… pruning hooks"), the blessedness of the times being manifest in the abundance of produce ("The plower shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes the one who sows seed," Amos 9:13). The curse entailed by Adam's sin was not labor but the sweaty toil required henceforth to wrest bread from a thorny and thistly earth (Gen. 3:17ff.).

Labor was considered so much a part of creation that God Himself is depicted as a worker. He "founded" the earth, and the heavens are his "handi- (or "finger-") work" (Ps. 8:4; 102:26); He is the "fashioner" (yoẓer) of everything (Jer. 10:16); man is clay and God the potter (yoẓer; Isa. 64:7, based on Gen. 2:7). He worked six days at creating the world and rested (so Ex. 20:11; in Gen. 2:2–3 "ceased") on the seventh; wherefore the Israelites must do the same (Ex. 20:8ff.; cf. the lesson of the manna, Ex. 16; cf. *Sabbath ). It is not remarkable, therefore, that many of Israel's heroes were workers, or began as such: Moses (Ex. 3:1), Gideon (Judg. 6:11), Saul (I Sam. 11:5), David (17:34), Elisha (I Kings 19:19), and Amos (1:1; 7:14).

The sapiential literature lauds work and condemns sloth and idleness: "One who is slack in his work is brother to him who is a destroyer" (Prov. 18:9). The sluggard is sent to the provident ant for a lesson in industry (6:6ff.; cf. 20:4). Work is better than words (14:23), for "he that tills his ground shall have plenty of bread, but he who pursues vain things shall have plenty of poverty" (28:19; cf. 10:4; 12:24). The efficient, hardworking woman ('eshet ḥayil) no less than her male counterpart ('ish mahir bi-melakhto) is extolled (22:29; 31:10ff.). Contentment is the lot of the honest laborer:

 When you eat the fruit of your own labors
You shall be happy and contented (Ps. 128:2);
Sweet is the sleep of the laborer,
Whether he eat little or much (Eccles. 5:11).

Success is not, however, an automatic outcome of work: "Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders will have toiled in vain" (Ps. 127:1); hence the customary felicitation with which one greeted workers, "The blessing of the Lord be upon you!" (Ps. 129:8; cf. Judg. 6:12; Ruth 2:4). Ecclesiastes, the late writer, concluded after long brooding and observation that even enjoyment of one's acquisitions was entirely a matter of luck – a gift of God to those who pleased him (for inscrutable reasons; Eccles. 2:18–26; 3:12–13; 5:12–6:2, etc.).

The Torah is solicitous of the wage earner. An employer must pay his day laborer "on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt" (Deut. 24:15; cf. Lev. 19:13; on the length of the workday, from sunrise to sunset, cf. Ps. 104:23). This ruling applies equally to Israelite and foreign laborers (Deut. 24:14). Violations of this injunction are denounced by prophets (Jer. 22:13; Mal. 3:5). The laws concerning debts and debtors and the Jubilee had as their object the protection of laborers and farmers.

The Israelites did not take kindly to the conscription of labor for service to their kings (see *Corvée ). Samuel warned them of its hardships (I Sam. 8:11–12) – perhaps on the basis of Canaanite royal practice – and under Solomon its rigors were such (I Kings 5:27–28) that they led to the rebellion and secession of the North (I Kings 12). (By royal privilege a citizen or family might be exempt (ḥofshi) from such service; I Sam. 17:25.) A glimpse of life among such conscripts is afforded by a letter dating to the seventh century B.C.E. recovered from a fortress near Yavneh recording the complaint of a laborer against his superior for seizing his cloak (Pritchard, Texts3, 568).

For the most part, the literature that has been preserved from the Second Temple period expresses this plebeian outlook. "Hate not laborious work or husbandry," urges Ben Sira, "for it was ordained by God" (7:15). Issachar is the ideal figure of a God-fearing, chaste, industrious farmer in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. Injunctions to treat hired labor kindly and not keep back their pay appear in Tobit 4:14; Ben Sira 7:20; 34:22. Horror of a beggar's life is expressed in Ben Sira 40:28ff.

A new note (anticipated in an Egyptian "Satire on the Trades" a millennium earlier (Pritchard, Texts, 43ff.)) is sounded in Ben Sira 38:24–34. Here the superiority of the learned scribe over the laborer and artisan is forcefully stated. The latter are, admittedly, necessary, but their horizons are bounded strictly by the requirements of their craft.

 Without them a city cannot be inhabited,
And wherever they dwell they hunger not.
But they shall not be inquired of for public council.
And in the assembly they enjoy no precedence.
On the seat of the judge they do not sit,
And law and justice they understand not.
They do not expound the instruction of wisdom,
Nor understand the proverbs of the wise.
They understand the work of the world,
And their thought is on the practice of their craft (38:32–34).

A learned patrician speaks here, heralding a clash in values that would shortly ripen into sectarian conflict (see *Pharisees , *Sadducees ).

[Moshe Greenberg]

In the Talmud

Out of the many references to labor in the talmudic literature a clear picture emerges of the rabbinic attitude to labor. The need for having an occupation was raised to the level of a positive biblical commandment. The first half of Exodus 20:9, "six days shalt thou labor," was regarded as a separate injunction and not merely as an introduction to the prohibition of work on the Sabbath. Rabbi (Judah ha-Nasi) said, "These words constitute a separate commandment. In the same way as Israel was commanded concerning the Sabbath, so were they commanded concerning work" (Mekh. SbY to 20:9; cf. ARN1 11:44 and Gen. R. 16:8). The virtue of work is continually extolled: "Man should love toil and not hate it." Adam did not partake of anything until he had worked, as it is said, "to dress it and to keep it"; the *Shekhinah descended upon the children of Israel only after they had worked, as it is said, "and they shall make Me a sanctuary and I shall dwell in their midst" (ARN1 loc. cit.).

Two reasons were given for the duty of being gainfully employed. One was the need for economic independence. No work was degrading if it achieved this: "Make thy Sabbath as a weekday (in respect to forgoing the added special meal) rather than be dependent on others" (Shab. 118a); "Flay a carcass in the street and earn a wage, and say not, 'I am a great man and degrading work is not for me'" (BB 110a); and "He who enjoys the work of his hands is greater than the man who fears heaven" (Ber. 8a). When R. Judah went to the bet midrash he would carry a pitcher on his shoulder, declaring, "Great is labor for it honors the person who does it" (Ned. 49b). "Great is work. Even the high priest, if he were to enter the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement other than during the *Avodah , is liable to death; yet for labor in it even those ritually unclean or blemished were permitted to enter" (Mekh. SbY to 20:9).

No less important, however, was the consideration of the social evil of idleness, irrespective of economic needs: "Idleness leads to unchastity" or "to degeneration" (Ket. 5:5) and "no man dies except from idleness" (ARN ibid.). "If a man has no work to perform, what shall he do? If he has a neglected courtyard or field let him go and work in it" (ibid). "He who does not teach his son a trade is as though he taught him to be a robber" (Kid. 29a). "Whosoever has a craft is like a vineyard surrounded with a protective hedge" (Tosef., Kid. 1:11). The therapeutic value of work is also stressed (Git. 67b). Nevertheless, one should, as far as possible, be selective in choosing one's occupation. There were "clean and easy trades" such as perfume-making and needlework, and there were mean occupations such as "ass drivers, wagoners, shepherds, and shopkeepers," the trade of butchery being regarded as of an especially mean character. People were enjoined to choose the former and avoid the latter. Similarly, trades which brought men into undesirable contact with women, such as jewelers, carders of wool, barbers, launderers, and bath attendants, should be avoided (Kid. 82a–b).

The dignity of labor was stressed: "Those engaged in work are not required to stand before a scholar while they are engaged in their tasks" (Kid. 33a), and it was emphasized that laborers also are "the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" (BM 7:1).

Nevertheless, this view of the supreme importance of labor per se is diminished by the consideration that the highest ideal is to be free from all worldly occupation in order to be able to devote oneself entirely to spiritual pursuits, to the study of Torah, or generally, "in order to serve one's Maker." According to this view, labor is a punishment inflicted upon man: "Simeon b. Eleazar said, 'Hast thou ever seen a wild animal or bird practicing a craft? Yet they find their sustenance without trouble, though they were created only to serve me. But I was created to serve my Maker; how much more so should I receive my sustenance without trouble? But I have wrought evil and so forfeited my right'" (Kid. 4:14). This view is emphasized by Simeon b. Yoḥai: "If a man has to plow in the plowing season, sow in the sowing season, reap… thresh… and winnow, what will become of the Torah? But when Israel fulfills the will of the Omnipresent their work is done for them by others and when they do not fulfill the will of the Omnipresent not only have they to carry out their work themselves, but they have to do the work of others" (Ber. 35b; cf. ARN1 11:44). Its highest expression is in the statement of Nehorai: "I would ignore all the crafts in the world and teach my son only Torah," since unlike manual toil it guards him both in old age and sickness and in the world to come (Kid. 4:14).

The compromise between these two extreme views is found in the ideal which was followed by most of the rabbis, in the combination of study with a worldly occupation. It is stated by Ishmael in explicit contradiction to the above-mentioned view of Simeon b. Yoḥai, and the maxim of Rabban Gamaliel in Avot (2:2) is "excellent is the study of the Torah combined with a worldly occupation for the toil involved in both makes sin to be forgotten. All study of the Torah without work is futile and is the cause of sin." This ideal is especially advocated by *Meir , who, however, in addition to his many maxims extolling the value of manual labor urges that one should diminish one's worldly occupation as far as possible in order to be free for the study of the Torah (Avot 4:10). "The former generations made study their main concern and their work subsidiary to it, and they prospered in both; the later generations did the opposite and prospered in neither" (Ber. 35b).

Laborers and Employers

As mentioned, the dignity of labor and concern for the rights of laborers is emphasized. The biblical injunction to pay the laborer in time (Lev. 19:13) is expanded to the effect that "he who withholds an employee's wages is as though he had taken his life" (BM 112a), and in disputes between employees and workers the rights of the latter were given preference over those of the former (BM 77a). Especially significant is the rule laid down that the laborer has the right to withdraw his labor at any time, as an expression of his freedom from servitude to his fellowman (BK 116b; BM 10a). The extent to which the employer was liable for the laborer's food (BM 7:1) and the prerequisites to which the laborer was entitled are carefully laid down (BK 119a–b).

A constant anxiety is nevertheless expressed at the tendency toward idleness and the exploitation of their employers on the part of laborers. "The laborers are sluggish," stated by Tarfon metaphorically about the service of God (Avot 2:15), seems to reflect actual conditions. "A laborer usually works faithfully for the first two or three hours of the day only, after which he becomes lazy" (Gen. R. 70:20). "He who has been left a large fortune by his father and wishes to squander it, let him hire workers and not work together with them" (BM 29b). The law that a laborer could recite the *Shema while on a tree or on the scaffolding of a building (Ber. 2:4) or curtail the Grace After Meals (Ber. 46a) was designed not in the laborer's interests but in that of his employer's time. For reciting the *Amidah , however, which is prayer proper, they had to descend to the ground. It was regarded as praiseworthy to follow a hereditary trade (Ar. 16b).

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]

Later Rabbinic Writings and Modern Trends

Manual labor and social justice were often stressed in rabbinic writings. Labor was considered a blessing in itself, and it was held that the Bible required the state to concern itself with its citizens during unemployment, old age, and illness. These benefits were to be granted as a matter of legal right and in a manner which was not offensive to the recipients' sense of dignity (Simon Federbush, The Jewish Concept of Labor (1956), 50–51; Z. Warhaftig (ed.), Osef Piskei Din Rabbaniyyim, 45). The workers' right to organize into unions was upheld by the rabbis, and it was viewed as an extension of the dictum that "townspeople may inflict penalties for breach of their regulations" (BB 8b; Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook cited in Katriel Tchorsh, Keter Efrayim (1967), 160–171; cf. Moshe Feinstein, Iggerot Moshe: Ḥoshen Mishpat, 108–9). The workers' right to strike was justified (Shillem Warhaftig, bibl., 982, 984; Iggerot Moshe, 110–111), although one opinion would not permit work-stoppages in the disputes of workers engaged in providing health services, electricity, and education (Keter Efrayim, 171). Another viewpoint was that all strikes were only permitted if the employers refused the workers' request to arbitrate their differences (Raphael Katzenellenbogen, Ha-Ma'yan (Tishrei 1965), 9–14).

Labor Ideology in Europe

In modern times, from the *Haskalah period in the 19th century, the alienation of the Jews in the galut from manual labor, particularly from agricultural production, was increasingly regarded as the root of evil in the "Jewish problem," while "Jewish parasitism" became a key word in modern antisemitism. The famous Yiddish term "luftmenshen," i.e., people who willy-nilly make a living from all kinds of petty, superfluous, mediating occupations, instead of useful work, emerged in the peculiar atmosphere of the Russian *Pale of Settlement , which in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a kind of huge "reservation" consisting of a network of towns and townlets in which masses of Jews were compelled to live "on air." The reaction in Jewish society to this condition took many social and political forms, including the mass emigration from Russia to the West (see below) and the yearning for a "return to the soil," particularly in Ereẓ Israel. There were also attempts at "productivization" in Russia itself, as, e.g., in the Jewish agricultural settlements in southern Russia, the fostering of *crafts and artisanship among Jewish youth, etc. Most of these trends were linked to elaborate ideologies, which, according to their originator's basic concepts, were either religious (as, e.g., Shemuel Ḥayyim *Landau , the founder of Ha-Po'el ha-Mizrachi, and his followers), or socialist (see *Socialism, Jewish ; *Bund ), or Zionist and Zionist-Socialist ( *Bilu ; Naḥman *Syrkin ; Ber *Borochov ). In the early stages of the pioneering movement in Ereẓ Israel, the ideology of labor was elevated to a basic philosophy of the reborn Jew rooted in the soil of his homeland ( A.D. *Gordon ; Second *Aliyah ; *Israel, State of, Labor ). This philosophy was largely instrumental in reversing in the Land of Israel the social structure of the "nonproductive" Jewish population in the European Diaspora. The ideology of productivization was also the motive force of endeavors of Jewish settlement on the land in *Argentina , *Brazil , and, in the 1930s, in Soviet *Birobidzhan .

In the United States

The mass East European emigration which began during the 1880s and continued through the 1920s brought great numbers of Jewish workers to the United States. Continuing their European socialist orientation, many of them became active in the American labor movement which began to develop during this period. They organized the United Garment Workers of America (1891); the women afterwards left this union and formed the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (1900); and the majority of the male clothing workers later parted with the original group and formed the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (1914). In 1888 several small Jewish labor organizations formed the United Hebrew Trades as their central body. This group later comprised a majority of the Jewish workers in the United States (see *Socialism, Jewish ). The most prominent early Jewish trade unionist was Samuel *Gompers who helped establish the American Federation of Labor in 1886, and served as its president for 38 years. Rabbis early became active in labor mediation in the United States, serving on both general and Jewish mediation boards. The kehillah, the official community of New York Jewry (1908–22), formed a "committee on conciliation." Its members included Moses *Margolies and Philip *Klein of New York's Ohab Zedek Congregation. Among this committee's activities were the prevention of a threatened strike of poultry shoḥetim in 1909, and the arbitration of complaints of Sabbath-observing cloakmakers against their union (Arthur Goren, New York Jews and the Quest for Community, 1970, 198–9, 301). Morris *Adler of Detroit served as the chairman of the Public Review Board of the United Auto Workers (1957–66). The rapid deproletarization of American Jews in the second and particularly the third generation can be regarded as a corollary of both the technological revolution of Western civilization from the middle of the 20th century as well as of the general trend to the professions characteristic of Jewish society in all Diaspora countries, while a Jewish farming population and proletariat continued to exist almost solely in Israel.

[Baruch Yaron]


IN THE BIBLE: S. Kalischer, in: Festschrift Hermann Cohens (1912), 579ff.; J. Husslein, Bible and Labor (1924); H.L. Ginsberg, in: VT Supplement, 3 (1955), 138ff.; I. Mendelsohn, in: BASOR, 143 (1956), 17ff.; L. Finkelstein, The Pharisees, 1 (1962), 219ff.; S. Talmon, in: BASOR, 176 (1964), 29ff. LATER RABBINIC WRITINGS: Shillem Warhaftig, Dinei Avodah ba-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1969), 2 vols.; N. Shemen, Baziung zu Arbet un Arbeter (1963), 2 vols. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Powell (ed.), Labor in the Ancient Near East (1987).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.