July 25, 2024
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”שְׁמַעְיָה אוֹמֵר, אֱהֹב אֶת הַמְּלָאכָה, וּשְׂנָא אֶת הָרַבָּנוּת, וְאַל תִּתְוַדַּע לָרָשׁוּת.“ (אבות א:י)

We are, of course, familiar with Shimon Hatzadik’s seminal statement (at the beginning of Avot’s first perek) that the world stands on three pillars: Torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim.1 Though his mention of avodah is generally understood as referring to korbanot and tefilla, the 11th mishnah of the first perek emphasizes the importance of melacha (physical labor) as well. In that mishnah, Shemaya (the first of the fourth zug (pair) that passed forward the mesorah) encourages us to “love work.”

Torah Importance

The Torah emphasizes the importance of our work in its very first parsha, Parshat Bereishit. The world’s vegetation was ready to sprout, but did not because “there was no man to work the ground.” Afterwards, when finally created, man was placed in Gan Eden, “l’ovdah u’l’shomrah — to work and protect it.”2 Though Hashem created Gan Eden with its own watering system (and, presumably, He could have created it as totally self-sufficient), Hashem charged Adam with responsibility for Gan Eden in order to teach him the importance of his work.

This is why the mitzvah to observe Shabbat includes not only the prohibition against work on the 7th day, but also the command to work 6 days. “Sheshet yamim ta’aseh melachah — for 6 days shall you work.”3 Work is also part of the brit (covenant) with Hashem.4

Rabbi Yishmael5 understood this to be the point of the pasuk, “V’asafta d’ganecha — and you shall gather your grain,” that appears in the second parsha of kriyat shema. Rabbi Yishmael explained that the pasuk was not only descriptive, but also prescriptive: “hanheg bahem minhag derech eretz.” In addition to learning Torah, we are meant to spend time acting “in accord with the ways of the world.” Working the fields is so important that we commit to it time that we would have devoted to Torah learning. Rabban Gamliel (the son of Rabbi Yishmael) took this idea even further by teaching that Torah not complemented by work will “end up failing and leading to sin.6

Chazal

Chazal emphasized the importance of work in many places. The midrash7 attributes this value to the very first Jew. After Hashem told Avraham: “Lech lecha … ” (without specifying which land he should set out for), Avraham visited various countries. When he first encountered lands whose people spent their days partying, he said, “I hope that I am not meant to live here.” When he arrived in Eretz Yisrael and saw people working the land, he said, “I hope that this is where Hashem intends for me to be.” Hashem responded and said, “Indeed, this is the place.” Avraham recognized the importance and positive nature of productive physical labor.

Planting takes precedence even over welcoming the Mashiach. If a person is planting a sapling and is informed that Mashiach has arrived, he should finish planting and only then go out to greet Mashiach.8 Greeting Mashiach is not our priority… Planting is.

Rabbi Akiva learned from brit milah that we are supposed to work to finish what Hashem created.9 He saw the fact that humans are born with an umbilical cord that we need to cut as a model for this broader idea.10

Work is not just how we continue Hashem’s creation. It is also how we emulate Him. As opposed to the Gemara, which mentions being merciful as a fulfillment of “v’halachta b’drachav — and you should walk in His ways,” the midrash11 encourages us to follow Hashem’s ways by emulating His first actions when He created the world — planting and development.

This is why Rav Kook trembled when planting a tree. When the settlement of Magdiel celebrated its establishment, Rav Kook participated in the festivities. The ceremony included the planting of trees, and Rav Kook was given the honor of placing the first sapling in the ground. The organizers handed Rav Kook a hoe with which to dig the hole, but he threw it aside and began digging with his bare hands instead.

Suddenly, Rav Kook’s entire body seemed to quiver and shake, and his face looked like a burning flame, as he placed the sapling in the ground with awe and trepidation. “What is all this excitement about?” he was asked. “Thank God, people plant hundreds of trees every day in Eretz Yisrael!”

Rav Kook replied, “When I held that tender sapling in my hand, I remembered the imperative to emulate God and walk in His ways. When I was about to put the sapling in the ground,” Rav Kook explained, “I remembered these words and felt as if I was clinging to the Shechinah. Thus, I was overcome by emotion, fear and trembling.”12

Loving Work

The Maharal13 highlights the first of Shemaya’s words, “Ehov et hamelachah.” We should not only do work, but also love the work we do. The Gemara14 tells us that Hashem instills within each of us a love for the work we are supposed to be involved in.15

Understanding the Importance

Why is our work important? The mishna in Sanhedrin16 provides an important perspective: The mishna disqualifies a person who earns his livelihood through gambling from testifying in court. The Gemara explains that even one who gambles in a way that avoids the prohibition against thievery is still disqualified because he is not “oseik b’yishuvo shel olam — involved in developing the world.” The Rambam17 sharpens this idea by describing the gambler as violating the prohibition against being involved in meaningless pursuits. He explains that Hashem put us in this world to focus on two things — developing ourselves and developing the world.

Developing the world is important, not just for its sake, but also for our own. Avot D’Rabbi Natan18 quotes Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira who directs those without work to search for work that needs to be done. Rabbi Tarfon adds that people die only once they find themselves without something constructive to do. Sefer Iyov summarized this idea in three words: “Adam l’amal yulad — Man is created for the work that he does.”19 When we work, we realize our mission in life. Those who are idle, do not.

Most people need to work hard to support themselves. It is important to internalize Shemaya’s message that work is not a “necessary evil,” but, rather, one of Hashem’s basic expectations from us. Realizing this can help us approach our work in a way that allows us to enjoy and (even) love it. May our internalizing of Shemaya’s words help us develop ourselves as complete avdei Hashem who serve Him in all of our endeavors.

*Written up by Yedidyah Rosenwasser


Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.

1 Avot 1:2.

2 Bereishit 2:15. Note that the Torah already mentioned Adam being placed in Gan Eden in pasuk chet. It repeats his placement there to emphasize man’s responsibility to work and protect.

3 Shemot 20:9.

4 Avot D’Rabbi Natan 11:1.

5 Berachot 35b.

6 Masechet Avot 2:2.

7 Bereishit Rabbah 39:8.

8 Avot D’Rabbi Natan, Nusach Bet, 31.

9 Midrash Tanchuma, Tazriya Five.

10 One could understand Rabbi Akiva as referring to our spiritual development (see Sefer HaChinuch Two who explains the lesson of brit milah this way). The upcoming sources, though, clearly refer to physical labor.

Rav Yosef Ben Machir (in his sefer “Seder Hayom”) proves that we are meant to work from the fact that Hashem created us with arms and legs.

11 Vayikra Rabba 25:3.

12 An Angel Among Men, pages 273-274.

13 Derech Chayim, Masechet Avot 1:10.

14 Berachot 43b.

15 Based upon this idea, the Chovot Halevavot (Sha’ar HaBitachon: Sha’ar Daled,  Perek Three) says that we can figure out the line of work Hashem intends for us by seeing what we enjoy.

The fact that Hashem programs us to enjoy our work and feel fulfilled through it is another indication of the value Hashem wants us to attribute to it.

16 Talmud Bavli, Masechet Sanhedrin 24b.

17 Mishna Torah, Hilchot Gezeilah V’aveidah 6:11. See also Talmud Bavli, Masechet Ketuvot 59b.

18 Avot D’Rabbi Natan 11:1.

19 Sefer Iyov 5:7.

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