MEANING IN MITZVOT by Rabbi Asher Meir
Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on Rabbi Meir's commentary Meaning in Mitzvot on Kitzur Shulchan
Striving for economic independence is a primary value in
halacha. Following are a few examples of laws which exemplify this value:
In the Orach Chaim section of the Shulchan Arukh we learn that after setting
aside time for Torah learning after morning prayers, “a person goes to
business, for all Torah which is not accompanied by work is certain to lead
nowhere and to draw sin in its wake” (SA OC 156:1). We also learn that
teaching a trade to a youngster is considered CHEFTZEI SHAMAYIM, among those
exalted matters which are permissible to discuss on Shabbat (SA OC 306:6).
In Yoreh Deah, we learn: “Even if a person is an honored scholar, he should
occupy himself even in a base profession, even a disgusting profes- sion, so
as not to become dependent on others”. (SA YD 255:1). We also learn that the
highest level of charity is to help someone to become self-sufficient rather
than helping them with immediate needs (SA YD 249:6).
In Even HaEzer we learn that a hus- band is obligated to go to work to
support his wife, as he obligated himself in the ketuba (SA EHE 70:3 in Rema).
In Choshen Mishpat we learn that a professional gambler is disqualified from
testifying if he has no other profes- sion. But if he has another profession
and “contributes to the settling of the world” then we consider this
occupation sufficient to preserve his natural rectitude and he may testify
(SA CM 34:16, 370:3).
What is the spiritual significance of this obligation? Rav Kook provides a
profound explanation based on the following passage in Bera- khot (8a):
“Self-sufficiency is greater than fear of heaven. For regarding one who has
fear of Heaven Scripture states, ‘Happy is the man who fears HaShem’ (Tehillim
112). But of one who is self-sufficent Scripture states, ‘When you eat from
your own labor, happy are you and good is your lot’ (Tehillim 128).” The
gemara explains that “happy” refers to happiness in this world, and this
applies also to the fear of heaven; whereas “good is your lot” refers to the
next world, and consitutes a special quality of someone who eats of his own
Rav Kook opens, “The exalted feeling of self-sufficiency [literally,
enjoying the efforts of one’s own hands] is the most complete and good of
all the moral feelings in man”. The reason is that the very basis of
morality is human freedom of will and action. Without the freedom to choose
and the freedom to act, there is no place for value judgments. Human nature
is to use our freedom and our abilities to perfect ourselves to the greatest
extent possible, and not to rely on others.
Rav Kook explains that the highest level of Divine providence is not when
G-d provides for our needs, but rather when He gives us the ability to take
care of them ourselves. In this way our rewards, whether material or
spiritual, have a profound and inherent connec- tion with our true selves,
unlike an externally granted gift which is really only incidentally ours.
This is the concept of NEHAMA DEKISUFA, the “bread of shame”. Our ethical
teachings explain that G-d could have created souls and then directly
provide them with spiritual delight. But had He done so, their benefit would
be incomplete, since they didn’t earn this reward. Just as a person who
receives charity is a bit ashamed of his benefactor, compared to someone who
earns his living who unabashedly asks his wages from his employer, likewise
HaShem gives us the opportunity to earn our world to come so that we may so
to speak “look Him in the face” and experience the glory of the Divine
glance. (See Ramchal, Daat Tevunot chapters 18, 158.)
Rav Kook elaborates that a person who is used to improving his lot with his
own efforts on the material level will also be inspired to strive for
constant improve- ment on the spiritual level as well. Conversely, the habit
of depending on others and being satisfied with whatever they provide often
induces spiritual laziness which leads a person to complacency in whatever
level of Divine service comes naturally to him.
This is the difference between happi- ness in this world and goodness in the
next. The most this world can provide us in terms of true benefit is a happy
feeling. This is obtainable even from gifts, whether material or spiritual.
But the next world is the world of truth and perfection, and our level there
is not dependent on what we received but rather on who we are, on our level
of character development and our internalization of Torah. This kind of
achievement is attained by those who develop the character trait of self-
reliance. (From Ein Ayah Berakhot 8a.)
“Meaning in Mitzvot” is now undergoing
intensive editing; which will be followed IYH by printing. With the help of
loyal supporters, we hope to have the book on the shelves by Rosh HaShana.
If you would be interested in helping with publication, please contact Rabbi
Meir about making a dedication or subscription (advance purchase): E-mail
email@example.com, fax 02-642-3141.
Rabbi Meir authors a popular weekly on-line
Q&A column, "The Jewish Ethicist", which gives Jewish guidance on everyday
ethical dilemmas in the workplace. The column is a joint project of the JCT
Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev;
and Aish HaTorah. You can see the Jewish Ethicist, and submit your own Qs —
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