18. Introduction to Developing a Torah Personality

18.4. Torah Personality Part 2 B


For our purposes, however, both of these approaches to the value of labor can be regarded as correct. What is important is the sense of human responsibility and the recognition of the importance of building the world and improving society. To us, work is indeed a central value. Chazal have numerous statements to this effect. For example, just as there is an obligation to rest on Shabbat, there is also an obligation that “Six days shall you labor and do all your work” (Shemot 20:9); the two are somewhat interrelated (see Avot De-Rabbi Natan, version B, chap. 21, and Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on Shemot 20:9).

In a famous statement, the Rambam spoke of this in a halakhic context. The gemara (Sanhedrin 25b) says that a dice-player (i.e. a gambler) is disqualified from giving testimony in court. Two reasons are offered for this. One opinion is that he is a sort of thief, because of the halakhic principle that “asmakhta lo kanya.” Whoever gambles does so because he assumes he is going to win, and if he knew that he would lose he wouldn’t gamble.

Thus, he gambles based upon an asmakhta, relying on an implicit condition. Therefore, the loser does not really transfer ownership of the money, and the winner does not legally acquire it. The second opinion disqualifies a gambler because “eino osek be-yishuvo shel olam,” he is not involved in developing the world constructively. The gemara then brings a practical distinction between these two opinions. According to the first reason (asmakhta), even a person who gambles only occasionally is ineligible to give testimony. However, according to the second approach, only a professional gambler is disqualified—someone who has no other profession, but rather spends his entire day at the racetrack, or doing something similarly non-constructive.

The Rambam rules according to the latter opinion, but he takes the occasion to generalize:

One who plays dice with a gentile does not transgress the prohibition of stealing, but he does transgress the prohibition of occupying oneself with worthless things, for it is not suitable for a person to occupy himself all the days of his life with anything other than matters of wisdom and the developing of the world. (Hilkhot Gezeila 6:11)

I won’t deal now with the reason the Rambam thinks that the problem of asmakhta doesn’t apply to this case. What is relevant to us is his definition of the two things a person should be engaged in: divrei chokhma (matters of wisdom) and yishuvo shel olam (the developing of the world).


This notion of the significance of work per se, of engaging in yishuvo shel olam, of “le-ovdah,” has several bases. First, in a purely psychological sense, in terms of mental health, one’s self-fulfillment comes through work. For instance, the mishna (Ketubot 5:5, 59b) says that if a woman marries, she is expected to per- form certain tasks in the house, but if she brings servants with her, she does not have to do them. The gemara (ibid.) adds that the more servants she brings, the less she has to do, because they will take care of the needs of the household. However, beyond a certain point, this does not apply; her husband can demand that she do something—anything—because, Rabbi Eliezer says, “Idleness leads to lewdness;” it leads to a loose, lascivious life. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel offers a different reason: “A husband who takes an oath that his wife should do no work, should divorce her and pay her ketuba, since idleness leads to shi’amum.” Shi’amum can be understood either as insanity or as boredom, ennui, a sense of spiritual degradation. Even if she’s as wealthy as Midas, she has to do some kind of work, lest idleness lead to psychological and spiritual problems.

There is also, of course, a social basis to our emphasis on work. The fact is that work needs to be done. A society in which people work is, in terms of its basic structure and values, very different from one in which they do not. The midrash at the beginning of Lekh Lekha asks: When God told Avraham, “Go forth from your native land . . . to the land which I will show you” (Bereishit 12:1), how did Avraham know when he had arrived at the right place? From a mystical point of view, one might assume that he was attracted by the kedusha (sanctity) inherent within the land. But the midrash gives a very non-mystical explanation:

Rabbi Levi said: When Avram walked through Aram Naharayim and Aram Nachor, he saw the people there eating, drinking and acting loosely. Avram said to himself, “I hope that I do not have a portion in this land.” When he arrived at the cliffs of Tyre (what is now called Rosh Ha-nikra, at the northern border of Israel), he saw people busying themselves with weeding during the season for weeding, hoeing during the time for hoeing, etc. He said to himself, “I hope that I will have a portion in this land.” (Bereishit Rabba 39:8)

When Avraham saw people lounging around, eating and drinking and having a good time, he knew that he had not yet arrived. But when he saw people performing agricultural tasks that needed to be done, he sensed that he had come to the promised land. That is what attracted him. This was not a land whose people were devoted to the quest for pleasure but rather to commitment, work and responsibility. These are the things that define a culture.

There is a third basis as well to the emphasis on work, and this is more specifically religious in nature. A person who works is a partner to God in ma’aseh bereishit (creation). In this respect, he is imitating God. Usually we speak of imitating God by being merciful, or by performing acts of chesed (kindness), but the midrash also tells us:

Rabbi Yehuda ben Rabbi Simon said: [The verse states,] “After the Lord your God you shall walk” (Devarim 13:5) . . . [What does this mandate of imitatio Dei entail?] At the beginning of the world’s creation, the Holy One occupied Himself first with planting, as it says, “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden” (Bereishit 2:8); so too, when you enter the Land [of Israel], occupy yourselves first with planting—and thus it says (Vayikra 19:23), “When you enter the land and plant all fruitbearing trees. . .” (Vayikra Rabba 25:3)

Of course, the trees are symbolic of man’s contribution to this world, to nature—something which is planted by human agency, rather than something which appears spontaneously. There are numerous other midrashim in this general vein.