World of the Sages: Success in tough economic times

When under time constraints due to profession, different rules are set for 'Shema' and 'Amida.'

soldiers pray gaza 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
soldiers pray gaza 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
When the time for prayer approaches, we occasionally find ourselves in locations that are hardly conducive to communion with the Almighty. An employer may be standing over us waiting for us to complete a task or perhaps we are speeding along a highway. When we are under time constraints due to our profession, different rules are set down for Shema on the one hand, and for Amida on the other (M. Brachot 2:4): Workers atop a scaffolding or up a tree may read the Shema where they find themselves; for Amida, however, they must descend. The difference is that reading Shema is a declaration of faith which can be expressed in any situation. Amida is a heartfelt supplication that requires a level of concentration that cannot be achieved when balanced precariously above the ground (Rashi, 11th century, France). A parallel source further notes that if a person finds himself in an olive tree or a fig tree - trees laden with branches that provide ample place to stand firmly - even the Amida may be said without descending (T. Brachot 2:8). Besides ability to concentrate, there is another consideration when deciding whether workers must descend from their workplace to pray. An employee is hired to work; to what extent should the employee be permitted to divert his attention, time and energy to pursuits other than the tasks at hand? Is the prayer requirement a valid reason to take an unscheduled break from work? According to one commentator, the olive and fig tree laborers should not descend for prayer, for they unjustly take a break from the task for which they were employed; other trees are easy to climb down and therefore the descent for prayer is a less significant encroachment on the employee's responsibilities (Rabbeinu Yona Gerondi, 13th century, Spain). This explains why the employer - as master of his own time - must always descend for prayer, regardless of up which type of tree he finds himself. A further source discusses the performance of other rituals during working hours (T. Brachot 2:9): While on the job, workers must read Shema together with the introductory and concluding blessings, recite the Amida, eat bread with the appropriate benedictions before and after the meal. Employees should not, however, serve as the leader of the service for this takes away too much time from their work. Analyzing these passages, the Talmud further regulates the rights of employees to take breaks for rituals, noting that the above guidelines only apply to workers who are rewarded with meals alone - a minimum wage of sorts - such employees have a greater license to take breaks for prayer. Workers who in addition to receiving food also collect wages are limited in the time they may take rituals while working; their lucrative contract precludes liberal breaks. According to the original talmudic law wage-receiving employees were to recite a shortened form of the Amida, were not to recite the blessing over bread and needed only say the abridged Grace After Meals (B. Brachot 16a). The talmudic law has evolved and in the codes of Jewish law workers' rights to take breaks for prayer have been broadened under the assumption that expectations and common practice have changed since talmudic times (Shulhan Aruch OH 110:2 and Mishna Berura 191:2). The principle, however, remains intact: Employees have a responsibility to their employers and they must honestly fulfill their contractual obligations. When presenting these laws, Maimonides (12th century, Cairo) offers a biblical paradigm for honest employees. Before leaving his father-in-law's employ, Jacob turned to Rachel and Leah and said: As you know, I have served your father with all my strength (Genesis 31:6). Citing this source Maimonides ruled that just as an employer must not cheat an employee, so too the employee must not cheat the employer. In what way does an employee cheat an employer? By wasting a bit of time here and a bit of time there, until the entire day has been craftily passed, with little or no work done. An employee should be like the righteous Jacob who worked with all his might for his employer. It is worth noting that Jacob was working for Laban, who was hardly the paradigm of an honest employer; it is doubtful whether Laban fulfilled all his obligations as an employer. Jacob could, perhaps, be excused for cutting corners, yet he chose to work hard and not shirk his employee responsibilities. Maimonides's biblical proof text is particularly surprising in that he adds a title to Jacob's name - Ya'acov Hatzaddik (Jacob the righteous). Jacob is normally referred to as Ya'acov Avinu (Jacob our forefather), even in Maimonides's writings; the only biblical personality in Jewish literature to be regularly accorded the epithet hatzaddik is Joseph. Joseph's righteousness is attributed to his fortitude in resisting the flirting of his Egyptian master's wife. Joseph is called hatzaddik because despite the opportunity to sin and perhaps the utility in acquiescing to the overtures of Potiphar's wife, he courageously balked (see Gen. 39:7-20). Seeing Maimonides's unexpected designation - Ya'acov Hatzaddik - we can surmise that there are two paradigms of the tzaddik. One path of righteousness is the tzaddik who resists temptation of the flesh. A parallel virtuous path is the tzaddik who withstands the lure of money. Following this line we can understand another talmudic passage, where the holiness of two sages is extolled (Y. Sanhedrin 29c). The famed Rabbi Yehuda the Prince was known as Rebbe Hakadosh (Rabbi the holy one) since he never focused on his sexual organs. Another sage was known as Nahum Kodesh Hakodashim (Nahum the holy of holies) for he never looked upon money. Again we have the two paradigms of righteousness, and in this talmudic source it would seem that withstanding the vice of money is even more laudable. Maimonides's conclusion is even more fascinating - particularly in difficult economic times, when markets are crashing, when economic depression looms: Jacob the tzaddik merited wealth in this world because of his honest, upstanding and hardworking attitude as an employee. Maimonides appears to be providing financial advice: For economic success hard, honest work is a prerequisite. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.