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Integrity in the Workplace – A Torah Work Ethic

The Paradigm of Yaakov

In Parashas Vayeitzeh we learn of the time spent by Yaakov Avinu as a shepherd in the home of his father-in-law Lavan. The twenty years during which Yaakov worked for Lavan were divided into three periods: For the first seven years Yaakov received the hand of Leah in marriage; for the second seven years Yaakov received the hand of Rachel (Yaakov’s initial intention), whereas for the last six years Yaakov’s remuneration was animals.

In spite of Lavan being a lowly cheat, Yaakov continued to serve him faithfully, as he later told his wives: “You know that I worked for your father with all of my strength” (Bereishis 31:6).

In his final meeting with Lavan, Yaakov spoke still more forcefully: “These twenty years I have spent in your service, your ewes and she-goats never miscarried, nor did I feast on the rams from your flock. That which was torn by beasts I never brought to you; I myself made good the loss… Scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night; and sleep fled from my eyes” (31:38-40). So faithful was Yaakov to his employer, that he made good the losses of sheep from his own property.

Yaakov’s behavior is thus the paradigm of the Jewish work ethic. Indeed, the Rambam (Sechirus 13:7) uses the testimony of Yaakov to define the obligation of an employee to his employer: “Just as the employer is warned not to steal the wage of the poor person or to withhold it from him, the poor person is warned not to steal from the work due his employer or to neglect his work slightly here and there, spending the entire day in deceit. He is obligated to be precise with regard to his time… Similarly, a worker is obligated to work with all his strength, as Yaakov the righteous man said: ‘I served your father with all my strength.’ “

In the present article we will address the halachic aspects of the Jewish work ethic. What is the obligation of a worker towards his employer? How does halachah recognize this obligation? Which personal matters may a person attend to during his working day? These matters, among others, are addressed below.


Halachic Recognition of Work Ethics: Birkas Ha-Mazon

So important is a worker’s faithfulness to his employer and his integrity in the workplace, that these even defer some religious obligations. One example of this is the obligation of Birkas Ha-Mazon.

The Gemara (Berachos 16a) writes, citing a baraisa, that workers employed on a daily basis (day laborers) recite only two of the four berachos that form the obligatory Grace after Meals (Birkas Ha-Mazon). They recite the first berachah in its standard form, whereas they adapt the second berachah to also include the third berachah. They omit the fourth berachah.

The reason for this shortening is to save on the time that a worker “takes” from his employer for personal reasons. Indeed, according to Tosafos this is done even though the duty to recite the full text of Birkas Ha-Mazon is a Torah mandated obligation. The Beis Yosef (Orach Chaim 191), however, explains that the order of four berachos is rabbinic in nature, and that for this reason the Sages were ready to shorten the order in order to reduce the employer’s loss of working time.

This halachah is ruled by the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 191:1). However, in practice the Shulchan Aruch writes (191:2), “Today, we always recite all four blessings, because it is not customary for people to be particular about this, and it stands to reason that the employer had in mind that the employees will recite all the blessings.”

In spite of this, we learn from this halachah – as the Rambam points out (Sechirus loc. cit.) – the extent to which the Sages underscored work ethics: Even the moments it takes to recite Birkas Ha-Mazon may not be taken from an employee’s working time without justification.

Other Relevant Halachos

The Grace after Meals is not the only halachah that is compromised for the sake of a complete working day. A similar principle is found with regard to prayer.

Although in general a person should daven with a congregation, and must pray the entire order of prayer, for day laborers the Sages enacted special provisions to ensure that the employer loses less time.

Thus, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 110:2) rules that instead of davening the entire Shemoneh Esrei prayer, a laborer should only recite the ‘Havinenu’ blessing, which encapsulates all eighteen berachos in a much shorter (seven blessings), blessing. However concerning prayer also, the Shulchan Aruch notes that in our days the common custom is for employers not to be particular about this.

The Mishnah Berurah (12) extends the principle, and writes that nowadays a person should pray not only the full Shemoneh Esrei, but he should even daven the entire order of prayer, from beginning to end. He cites the Lechem Chamudos that a person can even to go shul to daven with a minyan, but adds (citing the Magen Avraham) that this is only true in places where employers are not particular about this. He also cites a dispute concerning whether or not an employee may be the Chazan, and concludes that where this will not take more time than the actual davening service, it is permitted.

The principle is thus that integrity in the workplace defers these religious obligations, but the practice depends on how particular the employer is, and on the common custom in the relevant place.

Another relevant, and perhaps surprising, halachah is the matter of standing up for a Torah scholar. Although there is an obligation to respect a Torah scholar by standing up before him, somebody at work is not obligated to do so, and is in fact prohibited from doing so. The reason for this, according to the second explanation of Tosafos (Kiddushin 33a), is out of concern for the time of the employer. This halachah is ruled by the Rambam (Talmud Torah 6:2) and the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 244:5). In spite of the almost negligible time it takes to stand and sit before a Torah scholar, the Sages are concerned even about this!

Although the Shulchan Aruch does not qualify this halachah, as he does to the previous halachos mentioned, it stands to reason that one does not have to be particular about this halachah today, because it is clearly not the way of employers to be particular about this.

Integrity Outside the Workplace

The duty of honesty and integrity towards an employer does not end with the termination of working hours; it obligates an employee even during non-working hours. The classic halachic example of this is the prohibition against working for two employers, one during the day and one at night, so that the employee will not be too tired to carry out his duties properly. This halachah, whose source is in the Tosefta (Bava Metzia 8:2) is ruled by the Rambam (Sechirus 13:6) and the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 337:20).

Although the wording of the halachah, which refers to a day laborer and a nighttime occupation, is in line with the working conventions of Talmudic times (when daylight hours were standard working hours), the same concept, with necessary modifications, applies to the modern workplace. The general rule is that an employee may not accept additional work that will necessarily lower the standard of his existing position.

The Pischei Choshen (Chap. 7, note 27) writes that this prohibition applies specifically to an employee taking upon himself a regular night job, and doesn’t apply to occasional opportunities that won’t detract from his general performance. The reason for this is that in general, employers are not particular about such occasional jobs, and that this is the general “way of the world.” As noted above, it depends on the common custom in the particular place and the particular employment.

Additionally, it is incumbent on an employee to look after his personal health (physical and emotional) so that his performance at work won’t be adversely affected by poor health. The Tosefta (loc. cit.) writes that an employee may not starve or afflict himself, for this will be stealing from the employer. Even this halachah is ruled by the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch, and it once again demonstrates the importance of work integrity.

The Yerushalmi (Demai 7:3) even tells of Rabbi Yochanan, who once saw a schoolteacher (a rebbi in Cheder) who was physically weak. When Rabbi Yochanan determined that the weakness was a result of the teacher’s regular fasting, he rebuked him, and stated that it is forbidden for an employee to undertake voluntary fasts (not including mandatory fasts), for this will prevent him from executing his duties properly vis-à-vis his employer (see Magen Avraham 571:1). This applies all the more to those involved in the work of Heaven, such as teachers of Torah subjects (see Rema, Yoreh De’ah 245:17; Orach Chaim 571:2).

Nonetheless, the Aruch Hashulchan (Yoreh De’ah 245) writes that employees, and even Torah teachers, should arise early to say Selichos at the appropriate time. Of course, this should be compensated by retiring early the night before.

Dealing with Personal Matters at Work

In the third period of Yaakov’s tenure in Lavan’s employ, we find that in order to avoid harming his own work for Lavan, Yaakov gave his own animals to his sons to shepherd. The Midrash states of this (Midrash Ha-Gadol, Bereishis p. 546) that “an employee is not permitted to do his own work together with his employer’s work.”

The Tosefta (Bava Metzia 4:7) likewise rules that an employee must not occupy himself with other matters while performing his job, in a manner that will disturb him from his work. This principle is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 333:5).

Like the halachic matters noted above, the application of this principle is also contingent on the common custom, and on the specific custom of a particular workplace. A good example of this is making personal calls during one’s working hours. Although it is obvious that a person cannot spend all day on the phone at the expense of his employer, it is also true that today employers don’t ban the use of personal cell-phones in the workplace. Where a private call is short, and does not disrupt an employee from his work, it is clear that personal calls are tolerated by employers (see Shaarei Mishpat (Silber), p. 57, note 5).

Just as an employee must be wary of using his employer’s time for personal calls and the like, so too others should be wary of calling an employee (for non-urgent matters) at times that will cause a disturbance. The Sefer Chassidim (no. 310; no. 1008) writes that a person should not speak to Torah teachers and to other workers during working hours, and even warns against sitting next to them when this is liable to cause a disturbance.


The Rambam (Sechirus 13:7) concludes, referring once more to Yaakov Avinu: “Therefore, he will be granted a reward even in this world, as indicated by the verse: ‘And the man became prodigiously wealthy.’”

Notwithstanding his employer’s low moral standards, Yaakov Avinu upheld the highest standard of work ethics. These are the standards we must set for ourselves and strive towards.

Fulfilling one’s obligations to his employer is not only a religious duty and moral imperative; it also pays off. Let us remember that our duty to employers is, before anything else, a duty to Hashem. Bearing this in mind, it indeed goes without saying that fulfilling it pays off.

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