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Working It

In the Talmud, some essential reflections on labor and rest

by
Richard Hidary
September 18, 2020
AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images

Anyone from antiquity visiting a modern office might be surprised at what we call “working.” Before tractors, the vast majority of the world’s population needed to sweat in fields to survive. Today, being busy can mean sipping coffee in a comfy chair pushing little buttons, while recreation means working up a sweat on a treadmill or pulling weeds in the garden. At a time when someone can be a workaholic without getting up from his couch, how do we attain restfulness?

This question lies at the heart of what it means to observe the Sabbath, both in its technical requirements and as a philosophical framework. A history of the Sabbath laws parallels the evolution of occupations just as the future of Sabbath rest will need to respond to the complexities of the modern workforce.

The biblical Shabbat centers on agricultural work and food preparation: gathering grain, gathering wood, burning a fire for cooking, and working in the fields with one’s animals, servants, immigrants, and family members. The goal is not simply a day of physical rest for oneself but a day to practice social equality.

Yuval Noah Harari has documented how the agricultural revolution forced backbreaking labor on humanity and allowed for the institutionalization of economic and political slavery. The Fourth Commandment therefore appropriately connects the Shabbat cessation from agricultural work with a requirement that slaves and strangers must be allowed to rest just like the farm owner, a revolutionary idea in the biblical world.

The Babylonian creation myth taught that the gods created humans to be their slaves and chefs, offering meals so the immortals can rest. This myth served political ends to empower the king who could solely claim divine status for himself and thereby subjugate everyone else as his servants. Genesis 1-2 iconoclastically declares that God created all humans in His divine image as partners in governing the world. Humans build, create, and plan for six days and then rest on Shabbat like their Creator. Shabbat is the day when slaves became free as masters and mortals can transcend their cursed toil and enter the sacred sanctuary in time.

Skipping several centuries to Roman times when the rabbis became more urbanized and their adherents were not just agriculturalists but craftsmen and manufacturers, we find that their definitions of Sabbath work expanded to include various categories of creativity. Mishnah Shabbat 7:2 thus lists 39 principal labors including burning a fire and transporting items to a public domain as well as four major areas of processing: activities relating to agriculture and food preparation from plowing to baking; clothing manufacturing from shearing to stitching; scroll making from trapping and skinning to writing letters on parchment; and fashioning utensils and building.

Along with this list of prohibitions, the Talmudic rabbis also reconceptualized the goal of Shabbat on a psychological and emotional level. After all, the work of an artisan, teacher, or merchant can keep one’s mind busy planning, discussing, and worrying all day even without lifting a finger. One early midrash emphasizes value of ceasing to think about work and instead enter a state of mind as if everything on your to-do list has been crossed off:

Six days you shall labor and do all your work (Exodus 20:9): Now is it possible for a person to complete all of his work in six days? Rather, rest as if all your work has been done.
Another explanation: Rest from thoughts of work. As it is written: If you refrain from trampling Shabbat, from pursuing your affairs on My holy day … then you will find pleasure in the Lord (Isaiah 58:13-14; Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael).

The day of rest strives to relieve anxiety that comes from planning future activities and fretting about unaccomplished goals. A surprising corollary of this directive relates to restricting not only thinking about work and talking too much, but even praying for one’s needs, since that too is a hope for the future:

Rabbi Abahu said: Shabbat to God (Exodus 20:10), you should rest like God. Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, rested from speaking so too you should rest from speaking.
It once happened that a righteous man went out for a walk in his vineyard on Shabbat. He saw a breach in his fence and thought about mending it after Shabbat. He said, since I thought about mending it on Shabbat, I will not mend it forever …
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said: When Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai would see that his mother was talking too much he would tell her, “Mother, today is Shabbat!”
It was taught: One is prohibited from praying for one’s needs on Shabbat. (Yerushalmi Shabbat 15:3, 15c)
The Sages taught: One who enters to visit a sick person should say: It is Shabbat and therefore prohibited to cry out in prayer, but healing is soon to come. (Bavli Shabbat 12a)

The Talmud seeks to limit speech in general on Shabbat—just as God uttered commands for six days to create the world and ceased speaking on Shabbat so too we should find quiet on Shabbat. Whether we sympathize with Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai or feel sorry for his loquacious mother being shushed by her son, we can all appreciate a chance for peace and quiet. Those who are accustomed to close their screens over Shabbat express overwhelming gratitude for silencing the continuous barrage of text messages and pings that keep us in hypertension the rest of the week.

The big surprise comes in the last line where the rabbis even limit reciting prayers of request. The goal is not to limit liturgical word counts; rabbinic liturgy expands the Shabbat siddur with added poems of praise, and no rabbi would be offended if congregants asked for longer sermons. Rather, there is something specific about beseeching God for unrealized hopes that goes against the Shabbat spirit. Even praying for a sick person during a visit must be done with roundabout language: “We cannot pray for you today because it is Shabbat, but feel confident that healing will surely come.”

For this same reason, the 19 blessings of the usual central daily prayer get reduced down to seven blessings on Shabbat, omitting the largest section of requests. We work for six days on improving society, the economy, our health, our communities and our nation. But for one day, we enjoy our creative gains and the state of the world as they are without needing to feel anxious about how much we have yet to accomplished.

Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, reported on the popularity of Shabbat observance: “There is not one city, Greek or barbarian, nor a single nation, to which our custom of abstaining from work on the seventh day has not spread.” Since his time, the entire globe marks off time in seven-day periods and the majority of humanity enjoys some form of rest one day each week. As labor evolves from farming and manufacturing to cyber services we need strategies to break free from the kind of cerebral slavery we can find ourselves plugged into. A weekly opportunity to hide our to-do lists, erase any thought about tomorrow, and enjoy what we have now with those around us, can help us focus our awareness on the pace of passing time and enhance our appreciation for the sanctity of being alive.

Rabbi Dr. Richard Hidary is a professor of Judaic Studies at Yeshiva University, a rabbi at Sephardic Synagogue, and a faculty member for the Wexner Heritage Program. He was recently a Starr fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Jewish Studies and a Clal - LEAP fellow at the Katz Center for Advanced Jewish Studies, University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Dispute for the Sake of Heaven: Legal Pluralism in the Talmud (Brown University Press, 2010) and Rabbis and Classical Rhetoric: Sophistic Education and Oratory in the Talmud and Midrash (Cambridge University Press, 2018). He is currently writing a new translation and commentary on tractate Sanhedrin and recording daf yomi classes (available on YouTube). He also runs the websites teachtorah.org, pizmonim.org, and rabbinics.org.

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