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Jewish World Review
March 6, 2006
/ 6 Adar, 5766
Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir
How many hours of work is too many?
Q: My hours of work at my law firm seem to be endless.
How much work is too much, leaving too little time for serving G-d?
A: The need for a fair and transparent work hour
policy was evident
in the time of the sages of the Mishnah, two thousand
years ago. The
Mishnah in tractate Bava Metzia states: "One who hires
workers and told
them to arrive early or stay late, if it is a place
where it is not
customary to arrive early or stay late, he cannot
compel them." (1)
What then is a "standard" work day in a place where
there is no custom
extend it? The Talmud tells us that it begins at
until some time before nightfall, in order to allow
the workers to
home before dark. (On Sabbath eve the worker needs
time to make minimal
Sabbath preparations before sundown, so he must leave
It's clear that this is quite a long workday nearly
twelve hours on
average. Certainly this is not customary today, though
including yours, seventy hour work weeks are not too
unusual. On the
hand, it is a workday that is clearly delineated.
While the worker is
admonished to be prompt and hard working, his
obligations are clearly
defined, and the employer is not allowed to exceed
them to compel the
worker to work longer if custom or agreement doesn't
It is this aspect that is most often a problem today.
are much less than in the time of the Mishnah, but
today find that their workday seems to be "endless",
as you state,
they feel that they are on call even when the workday
is done. Many
workplaces don't provide any clear guidelines for fair
professionals and managers; some have this problem for
shift workers as
The Shulchan Aruch (authoritative code of Jewish law)
leave the synagogue [following morning prayers], go to
the house of
and establish a time for learning. And this time must
be fixed, not to
missed even if there is an opportunity to earn much".
In the next
it tells us that a person should then go to work, but
work is of secondary importance to Torah (Bible). (3)
This is the same Shulchan Aruch which later on tells
us the standard
workday of the Mishnah. (4) We see that making work of
to Torah doesn't require us to devote many hours to
devoted solely to G-d's service, like prayer and Torah
study. But it
require a commitment, having certain times that are
sacrosanct and to
which workday concerns cannot intrude.
Of course the main refuge we have from our work lives
is the Sabbath.
even on weekdays, which are appropriately devoted to
we need certain times free from the burden of
The ideal working situation is one that leaves ample
time for other
of life: family life, helping others, prayer and
study, social life,
constructive recreation. But everyone has to make a
living, and it is a
fact of life that some kinds of work require long
hours on the job. In
these cases, the most important thing is to ensure
that the obligations
the worker are as clearly defined as possible. A
workday with no clear
is exploitative to the worker, and often backfires as
workers engage in
unproductive competition to put in hours without
productivity as well
"undertime" activities meant to camouflage leisure or
errands as work.
wrote in a previous column
that keeping a worker later than necessary turns often
"busy work", which Jewish law forbids as a kind of
unseemly domination of the employee.
The ideal working situation is a job which in itself
mankind, and also leaves adequate time for other
dimensions of G-d's
service, religious and otherwise. But even those whose
a long work day can keep their personal commitments,
as long as their
obligations are clearly defined and make their
non-working hours truly
SOURCES: (1) Mishnah, Bava Metzia 7:1. (2) Babylonian
Talmud Bava Metzia 83b. (3) Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 155 and 156. (4)
Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 331:1
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JWR contributor Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, formerly of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Reagan
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