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The Jewish Ethicist: Work Ethic

The Jewish Ethicist: Work Ethic

How hard can I drive my workers?


Q. My business is in an extremely competitive industry. Is there anything wrong with demanding long hours and hard work from my employees?

A. There's no question that hard work is an admirable trait. While it is true that the decree made to the first man, "By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread" is presented as a curse, the sages of the Talmud explain that it also contains a blessing: directed work which refines and improves nature, like the cultivation and processing of wheat until it becomes bread, is a unique expression of mankind's special intellectual level.

But we must also admit that this trait can be overdone. In the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath day is given to the Jewish people specifically so that it may be a day of rest for everyone among us, including ourselves, our beasts and our servants (Deuteronomy 5:14). And the Torah tells us that we should not give our servants "crushing work" (Leviticus 25:43).

How do we draw the line between admirable and excessive work? According to Jewish law, this distinction is not based only on how much exertion is involved. Rather we have to be careful not to assign work that is gratuitous. Rashi 's commentary on the above verse explains that the definition of crushing work is "work which is unnecessary, in order to dominate him. Don't tell him, 'Warm this cup', when you don't need it." It goes without saying that busy-work is demeaning, but Rashi goes on to explain that this is improper even when the servant doesn't know the work is unnecessary.

The average employer probably doesn't need to be told that giving busy work is not the best way to show respect to employees, but many modern workplaces, especially the 24/7 variety, exhibit various kinds of hidden busy-work. These can violate the spirit of Jewish law, and also can be very counterproductive. They are the type of overtime that encourages employees to take "undertime." This is the term coined by Tara Parker-Pope of the Wall Street Journal for all of the tricks employees have learned to pretend they are on the job when they're really taking care of personal affairs.

For example, among large corporations in one country it used to be the custom that in the early evening all the managers would leave the office. But they didn't head home to their families; they all went together to a local bar. And woe to any aspiring manager who would dare skip this nightly ritual! It goes without saying that not much work was accomplished in these jaunts, but an employee who skipped them was sure to be passed over for advancement.

While this is an extreme example, employers in high-pressure workplaces would do well to review the demands made on workers. Most tasks are probably needed, and there certainly is a place to make certain demands in order to create a professional and collegial atmosphere. For instance, dress codes and occasional company social gatherings are certainly not gratuitous.

But if there is an ongoing pattern of norms that exist only to display assiduousness, then there is a chance that you are imposing "crushing work" on your employees. An example would be if employees are ashamed to be the first to leave the office, even if they've finished their work satisfactorily.

Generally, if the employer is careful not to demand gratuitous sacrifices from employees, the other aspects of a balanced workplace, including providing adequate opportunities for family life and personal development, will take care of themselves.

SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 118:1; Sefer HaChinukh 346.

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at

JCT Center For Business Ethics

Copyright © JCT Center for Business Ethics.

September 28, 2002

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Anonymous, October 2, 2002 12:00 AM

Fair article.But do you know about our Dutch finance minister who threw out a whole culture of "being in yhe house " "working overtime" till ten o'clock at night?He changed the whole lot back till 18.00,by which time everyone should be with his family...and it worked!...Just a nice story....

(2) Larry Schoen, October 1, 2002 12:00 AM

How much work is enough?

This response seems to miss the mark. While the question asked about hard work in a competitive industry, the response dealt with busy work, gratuitous work and appearances. So the following questions remain for me: Is he paying them fairly for the hours they put in? Was it clear to them what the job was when they took it or have the requirements changed? How does one know when work is done "satisfactorily" and it's ok to go home - in some industries it seems like you can always improve the product or process. Suggested reading: The Overworked American and other books by Juliet Shor. PS, I have my own business and several things drive how much I work: the needs of my clients, my need for money to maintain the status of my family among our peers, and how interesting or engaging is the particular task that i'm involoved in, and how much energy i have.

(1) Anonymous, October 1, 2002 12:00 AM


Having worked in high pressure industry, I read the question differently. "long hours and hard work" needs to be compensated for adequately. This does not "go without saying" but must be stressed.

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