COVID-19 changed a lot of people’s perceptions as to what types of jobs are essential. Not only doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers are on the front lines, but so are retail clerks, maintenance workers, truck drivers and many others. In this context, it is interesting to think about what occupations, if any, have been promoted or praised in Judaism.
As it turns out, Jewish scholars gave work considerable attention. Talmudic sages advocated for working rather than living off charity. Indeed, this principle provides some food for thought for modern-day Israel, where many ultra-Orthodox do live off charity. According to a January 2020 report by Dr. Lee Cahaner and Dr. Gilad Malach for the Israel Democratic Institute, between the years 2003 and 2018, about 50% of ultra-Orthodox men aged 25-64 and 76% of women in the same age bracket worked.
Scholars had a great deal of respect for labour. The Talmud abhorred idleness and argues that it leads to mental illness and sexual immorality. (See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketubot 59b, at jlaw.com/articles/idealoccupa.html.)
“Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNasi 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.” (Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, 2:2). Midrash Rabbah Bereshit (Vayetze chapter) goes even further, saying that practising a craft saved lives.
Yet, the sages believed that being absorbed with making money is not the ideal for an individual. Again referring to the Pirkei Avot (4:10), Rabbi Meir asserted: “Rather limit your business activities and occupy yourself with the Torah instead.”
Historically, teachers were valued – but only to a point. The high priest Joshua ben Gamla (circa the first century CE) issued an opinion that “teachers had to be appointed in each district and every city and that boys of the age of six or seven should be sent.” Where the boy had a father, it was the father’s responsibility to make sure his son had a basic education. Significantly, between the third and the fifth century CE, providing the salary of the Torah and Mishnah teacher became a communal task. Even those without children contributed to the teacher’s wages.
But teachers were not fully trusted. The Mishnah of Tractate Kiddushin 82a teaches that a single man or single woman should not become a teacher. The Gemara explains that the rabbis worried that such a teacher might have an affair with a parent of one of the students.
On torahinmotion.org, Rabbi Jay Kelman contends that the Gemara initially suggests that the Mishnah is afraid that an unmarried teacher might molest his students, but then rejects this explanation, noting that molestation is not something we need to suspect happening. Kelman, however, says, “this is something which no longer can be said with any degree of certainty. What we can say with certainty is such a fear is warranted even with those who are married and that, while rare, when it occurs, the results are devastating and tragic.”
While on the subject of sexual misconduct in certain occupations, here is an idea that might resonate with the #MeToo movement: the Talmud lists certain precarious trades that require men to often be alone with women. For example, a male goldsmith who makes jewelry for women. Talmud scholars were uneasy that such a businessman would be tempted to sin.
Curiously, harsh words were said about doctors. Tractate Kiddushin 82a ends with this statement by Rabbi Yehudah: “The best of physicians deserves Gehenna.” Why do they deserve a damned place? An article on talmudology.com contends that the opinion was based either on the belief that doctors were haughty before G-d or the fact that their treatment sometimes killed the patient.
Even though Israeli citizens highly value their army, Shalom Sabar points out in a Forward video that, in Medieval Haggadot, the “bad son” was portrayed as a soldier. This was because, at the time, non-Jewish soldiers would come to kill Jews.
Sailors, on the other hand, “are mostly pious … with many a ship sinking, sailors were in constant fear causing most to be super honest in the hope that G-d would protect them.” As Kelman summarizes, there really are no atheists in the foxhole.
On myjewishlearning.com, Rabbi Jill Jacobs states that, since Mishnah Zeraim (Seeds) deals solely with agricultural issues, we have proof that Judaism emerged from an agriculturally based community. Yet, in the Torah, farmers get off to a really bad start. Early in Genesis, we learn that Cain was the first farmer. Notwithstanding, G-d refused to accept his offering, accepting only his brother Abel’s. Cain couldn’t accept this rejection. In a jealous rage, Cain killed his brother and hid what he had done. G-d, consequently, reduced Cain to a life of wandering.
At a time when, around the globe, people are learning more about the extreme misconduct of some police officers, it is worth looking further into the Torah to see what Deuteronomy 16:18 and later commentators wrote about the police. Deuteronomy points out that both judges and police should be appointed to govern the people with due justice. Drawing on various Jewish sources, Rabbi Jacobs divides the function of the Deuteronomy-based police into several specific, but integrated parts: the patroling police person who “reminds the public to obey the law”; the roving inspector who ensures fair pricing and compliance with local ordinances; the arresting police officer who, while assuming the person is innocent until judged guilty, nevertheless begins the judgment process by arresting the suspect; the bill collector police officer who extracts payment from the obligated party to give to the aggrieved party; and the police officer who is a leader in his/her community. From Jacob’s assessment on truah.org, it would appear that today’s police have what to improve, especially when it comes to trust-building measures.
Over the centuries, Jewish scholars have taken into account the fallibility of people engaged in certain occupations. With tremendous insight into human behaviour, our sages apparently realized progress is not always in a forward direction. We have a long way to go in (re)establishing the integrity that Jewish scholars outlined for certain professions.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
The abstract of the article “Jewish Occupational Selection: Education, Restrictions or Minorities?” (The Journal of Economic History 65, no. 4 ), Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein reads: “Before the eighth-ninth centuries CE, most Jews, like the rest of the population, were farmers. With the establishment of the Muslim Empire, almost all Jews entered urban occupations
despite no restrictions prohibiting them from remaining in agriculture. This occupational selection remained their distinctive mark thereafter. Our thesis is that this transition away from agriculture into crafts and trade was the outcome of their widespread literacy, prompted by a religious and educational reform in Judaism in the first and second centuries CE, which gave them a comparative advantage in urban, skilled occupations.”
The full article is available at jstor.org.