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Sunday, 2 March 2014

Working for G-d doesn't pay much, but His retirement plan is out of this world

Sukkah 26


“I’m thinking of going into school administration,” a younger colleague said to me recently.  “I’m just concerned about leaving the rabbinate.  Maybe I’m copping out?  I’m having a hard time as a synagogue rabbi and I’m just not sure if it’s for me.”  “So what’s the problem, then?” I asked him, “It sounds like you’ve got a great opportunity at school X!” “Well,” he replied, “I really feel that I should be doing G-d’s work.  Should I forsake my spiritual calling for a desk job?”

Rabbi Chananya ben Akavya says “scribes who write Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzos, along with their merchants and their merchants’ merchants, as well as anyone who is occupied with Heavenly work – which includes sellers of blue-dye for tzitzis – are exempt from the Shema and from praying and from donning tefillin and from all other [positive] mitzvos mentioned in the Torah.  This dictum fulfils the words of Rabbi Yossi haGelili .  Rabbi Yossi HaGelili would say: One who is involved in a mitzvah is exempt from a mitzvah.”

The Shulchan Oruch (Code of Jewish Law) limits the exemption to mitzvos generally, except for the Shema and prayer.  Rabbi Moshe Iserles clarifies his ruling, stating that when “absolutely necessary,” we must conclude from the Gemara that even these mitzvos (Shema and prayer) may be skipped.  The Mishna Berura gives an example of an “absolutely necessary” situation.  An example, he says, is when the purchaser of a pair of tefillin is about to embark on a sea journey and will miss the boat if he were to wait for the scribe to pray before finishing the job.  In such a case, the scribe is obligated to skip prayer and complete the tefillin, which the Talmud says takes precedence.

Let’s reexamine the text of the Talmud.  Not only does the Talmud exempt scribes from certain mitzvos, but even mezuzah wholesalers (their merchants) and retailers (their merchants’ merchants) are exempted!  Picture a mezuzah retailer – mezuzos are generally sold in Judaica stores that sell everything from books to CDs to Shabbos lamps!  And yet, if they happen to be involved in a sale of a mezuzah, this could absolve them from praying on time!

The Biur Halacha (a more detailed halachic analysis written by the Mishna Berura) wonders if a merchant who is motivated by profit would be included in this exemption.  So what if he sells mezuzos, he’s just in it for the money!  He concludes that even though his initial motivation may have been financial, at the moment when he is selling the mezuzah, he is doing a mitzvah and is deemed “one who is occupied with Heavenly work.”

The Talmud is very liberal with its definition of who is considered to be “occupied with Heavenly work.”  You don’t need to be a Torah scribe.  You don’t even need to be a mezuzah merchant.  Anyone who is focused on a higher calling, no matter what they are doing professionally and no matter what their original motivation may have been could be performing the work of Heaven.

We all have the ability to be “occupied with Heavenly work,” it just boils down to mindset.  When you work, are you doing it just for the money?  Or are you doing it in order to earn a healthy parnassah (livelihood) so that you can have the wherewithal to live a life dedicated to the Almighty? 

If you are working in order to have the means to give your children a good Jewish education, in order to have the means to support charities and institutions, in order to have a table full of Shabbos guests, then you are “occupied in Heavenly work!”  True, you might not be absolved from davening or putting on tefillin, but you are certainly a servant of the Almighty and you have the ability to sanctify every moment that you toil at your chosen profession!


If you have the right focus, you are doing G-d’s work.  You can transform even the most mundane actions and moments into pure holiness.  You can answer that higher calling no matter what your job title claims!