The Torah Obligation to Work

Moshe Ben-Chaim

There is a common practice today where young men ask their father in law, or others, to financially support them so they can study Torah. It sounds like an honorable request, but what do God and the Rabbis teach? 

Asking another person to support my Torah study is unfair. Making such a request, I thereby make that person abandon their study while they labor to earn money so I can eat. But they have the same obligation to study as I do, so asking them to work is unjust. Perhaps I should work so they can study more! But don’t take my word…what does Torah say?

Genesis 3:19

“By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread…(Gen. 3:19).”  Adam was punished for violating God’s command not to eat the forbidden fruit. In other words, God told Adam he must work.

Ethics of the Fathers – Pirkei Avos

2:2Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi would say: Beautiful is the study of Torah with the way of the world, for the toil of them both causes sin to be forgotten. Ultimately, all Torah study that is not accompanied with work is destined to cease and to cause sin.”

3:19“Rabbi Eliezer the son of Azariah would say:, If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour.”  Meaning, one must work so as to buy food, i.e., “flour”.

4:5 – Maimonides’ lengthy commentary on this Mishna cites many Rabbis who refused to make their status as a Torah student into a tool through which they would gain monetary benefit. Rabbi Tarfon once did, and mourned for his error. And this he did to save his life. Nonetheless, all great Rabbis viewed Torah as an ends in itself, and not a means to personal benefit. The reason being that this distorts one’s view of Torah as that which benefits the soul, and renders it into a personally benefit. This corrupts one’s view Torah, and lowers man’s level of righteousness.

Maimonides: Hilchos Talmud Torah

3:7,8The Rabbis commanded that man minimize his work, and maximize his Torah study.”

The Rabbis did not say “stop” working, but to work…but not overindulge. Thus, work is endorsed.

Duties of the Heart – Chovas Halevavos (Gate of Trust, chapter 3)

Work benefits man in two ways: 1) his character may be perfected and demonstrated through his ethical dealings to attain external needs, 2) man is kept far from sin. For if he had all his needs, he would rebel and sin. Man’s state of laboring for his needs keeps him humble. In contrast, the state of luxury and overabundance makes man become full of himself, he grows arrogant and rebels against God. Actual quote is below:

“The reason the Creator obliged man to ex­ert himself and search for the means of [ob­taining] a livelihood and other necessities is twofold. 

First, since Divine wisdom demands the trial of the soul with service of God or rebellion against Him, God tries the soul with what will reveal its choice in the matter, namely, with the need and want for that which is external to it - food, drink, clothing, shelter, and sexual relations. He commanded human beings to seek and obtain these require­ments through the available means, in specific ways, and at certain times. What the Creator decrees a man should attain of them the man realizes and attains through ample means which are provided him. What the Creator does not decree that he should attain of them he does not attain, and the means are withheld from him. His service or sin is demon­strated through his intent on and choice of one to the exclusion of the other, and this then determines reward or punishment, even if he does not carry it out in deed.

Second, if a man did not have to trouble and busy himself in seeking means of obtaining his livelihood, he would rebel and chase after what is forbidden, and would pay no atten­tion to what he owes God for His goodness to him, as it says: ''They have lyre and harp, timbrel and flute and wine at their feasts, and they do not notice God's works, they do not see His handiwork" (Yeshayahu 5:12); "Yeshurun grew fat and kicked; you grew fat, thick, and gross.”