Q. I work by the hour, but I'm easily distractible. Do I have to deduct idle time from my time log?

A. Jewish law and tradition put great emphasis on the work ethic of employees. A worker is expected to give his or her full effort to the employer during the time at work. This ideal is exemplified in a remarkable story in the Talmud about Abba Chilkia: (1)

When the world needed rain, the rabbis would send to him and he would seek mercy, and the rains would come. One time the world needed rain, and the rabbis sent a pair of rabbis to him so that he could seek mercy and bring rain. They went to his house but did not find him; they went to the field and found him hoeing. They greeted him but he didn't [even] turn to them.

The Talmud then tells that when he arrived home, he went up to the roof with his wife where both prayed secretly, so that no one would know that it was his prayers that brought the rain; then the rain began to fall.

They told him: We know that the rain is falling because of you. But please explain something strange to us: Why, when we greeted you, didn't you turn to us? He replied, I was working as a day laborer, and I said to myself, I must not slack.

Abba Chilkia was a day laborer, not a renowned sage. But the prayers of a simple laborer who was scrupulous about his interpersonal obligations, including his work ethic, was acceptable on high far beyond that of the holy rabbis who sent to ask his prayers.

Maimonides codifies a similar idea in his Code (2):

Just as the boss is cautioned not to steal the wages of the poor or delay them, so is the poor person cautioned not to steal the work of the boss and idle a little here and a little there, until he passes the entire day in deceit. Rather, he must be scrupulous with time.

Alas, most of us are not at the level of Abba Chilkia or Maimonides, and occasionally we do idle: take a personal phone call, glance at a newspaper or the internet, etc. What do we do then?

In general, once a person is at the workplace and under the supervision of the employer, it is improper to dock the worker's pay for "under-work". The worker is obligated to work hard, but if he doesn't then the employer has to absorb the loss and chalk it up to inadequate supervision. (While pay shouldn't be docked unless there is an explicit agreement, a worker can certainly be discharged for idling.) There is nothing paradoxical about this; it is no different than the case of a bailee (paid watchman). The bailee, having received payment for supervising an object, must pay the owner if it is stolen, but that doesn't remove the liability of the thief.

However, your case is different. You are self-employed, and not directly supervised by your boss. In your case you should definitely deduct any time you spend idling from your time log. I saw an outstanding example of this when I first visited the typesetter for my book Meaning in Mitzvot. As I was talking to him, he took a phone call and simultaneously started a stopwatch so he would not charge me for time spent with another customer.

Sometimes workers make the excuse that occasional idling makes them work more effectively, and this may well be true. But that doesn't excuse recording those hours or minutes. Eating and sleeping make you more effective too, but you are expected to get enough rest and food on your own hours to work effectively in your work time. In fact, in the very same chapter Maimonides rules that worker may not moonlight if it makes him too tired to work, or stint on food if it makes him too weak to work effectively.

Every worker should strive to be maximally effective during all work hours, and to work 60 minutes an hour. Your work is first of all your responsibility, not that of the employer. But if you record your own hours, then you should definitely deduct time spent idling. This is particularly true for high-income professionals such as lawyers and accountants. These individuals bill hundreds of dollars an hour because they are expected to give a high level of skill and dedication for each hour. If Abba Chilkia was unwilling to distract himself from field work in his job as a day laborer, then certainly skilled professionals can be expected to screen out distractions during their billable hours.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Taanit 23a-b (2) Maimonides' Code, Laws of Hire 13:7

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