Torah Values for Life and Business

            April/May 2012    
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Essential Core Values for Individuals and Organizations, as Derived from the Torah

By Hershey H. Friedman, Ph.D. © 2011

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Core Value 6: Industriousness

Hertz (1992: 929) discusses how, unlike the ancient Romans or Greeks, Judaism saw dignity in labor. Hertz observes that “the Jewish sages are unanimous in their insistence that work ennobles and sanctifies.” The Hebrew word avodah can mean either work or worship / Divine service. In Genesis we see God as being industrious and innovative in creating the world in six days (Rae, 2004). Rae (2004) states: “God, in His providence, works through our occupations to accomplish His work in the world.” The Jews are commanded to emulate God and work for six days and rest on the seventh. The Torah (Exodus 20:9-10) states:

Six days you shall labor, and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your cattle, or the stranger that is within your gates.

The Midrash (Midrash Hagadol Exodus 20:9) observes that just as there is an obligation to rest on the Sabbath, there is also an obligation to work on the other days. Adam is placed in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15) “to work it and take care of it” even before he and Eve sinned. Work was always part of the divine plan for humankind (Rae, 2004). In fact, humankind, which has an obligation to imitate God (Leviticus 19:2), was given dominion over the entire earth (Genesis 1:26) for a reason. We are the caretakers of this planet and have to continue God’s work of creation by improving the world ( tikkun olam ).

The messianic vision of Isaiah and Amos in which humankind sits around being productive is a vision of world peace with everyone employed (Rae, 2004). Swords are transformed into working implements, not couches. The major verses are:

He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)

Behold days are coming, declares the Lord, when the plowman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall melt from it. I will return the captivity of My people Israel, and they shall rebuild the desolate cities and live in them. They will plant vineyards and drink their wine and they shall cultivate gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them on their land, and they shall never be uprooted again out of the land that I have given them, said the Lord, your God. (Amos 9: 13-15)

Proverbs has much to say about industriousness. People are instructed to (Proverbs 6:6): “Go to the ant you sluggard, consider her ways and be wise.” People who work are lauded by scripture (Proverbs 22:29):
“ Do you see a man diligent in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before insignificant men.”

No one is as hard working as the virtuous woman described in Proverbs (31: 10-27):

She [the virtuous woman] seeks out wool and flax, and works with her hands willingly.

She is like a merchant’s ships; from afar she brings her sustenance.
She arises while it is yet night, and provides food for her household and portions for her maidservants.
She considers a field and buys it; from the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.

She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong

She knows that her merchandise is good…

She stretches out her hands to the distaff, and her palms hold the spindle.

She opens her palms to the poor, and extends her hand to the needy...

She makes linen garments and sells them, and delivers sashes to the merchant…

She does not eat the bread of idleness.

The Psalmist (Psalms 128:2) also praises one who works: “When you eat the labor of your hands, you shall be happy, and it shall be well with you.” There is even a blessing for the person who works (Psalms 90:17): May the pleasantness of the Lord, our God, be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!”

Yishuv ha’olam (settling the world) and yishuv eretz yisrael (settling the Land of Israel) are both biblical obligations (Tamari, 1987: 33). The Torah describes what the Israelites must do upon entering the land (Leviticus 19:23): “When you come into the land and you shall plant any food tree…”

Abraham was very productive and apparently was also a tree planter. The Torah (Genesis 21:33) says: “ And Abraham planted a grove in Beersheba, and called there on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God.” Engagement in productive work is so important that the Talmud disqualifies professional gamblers such as dice players from giving testimony or serving as judges. Not engaged in a productive occupation that benefits society, i.e., yishuv ha’olam , they are not considered trustworthy (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 24b).

Humankind’s responsibility to “replenish and subdue” the earth is the basis of the concept of tikkun olam . Tikkun olam is the philosophy that people are obligated to repair and perfect the world (in Hebrew, tikkun means repair and olam means world). V’al Kein Nekaveh (which follows the prayer of Aleinu ) is one of the oldest of Jewish prayers (some claim that it goes back to the time of Joshua making it more than 3,000 years old) and it concludes all congregational services. One phrase in this prayer deals with tikkun olam , and describes the ideal society “when the world will be perfected under the reign of the Almighty.” The concept of tikkun olam includes alleviating such world problems as poverty, racism, oppression, and doing everything to improve the environment.

More recently, tikkun olam was a major part of the kabbalah of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572). Indeed, Rabbi Luria once remarked that the reason for so many problems in the world was because God needs humankind’s “help” in repairing the world. God gave humanity free choice and people can allow things to remain in disrepair or they can perfect the world. Everyone has a responsibility to work on such issues as human rights, the proper treatment of animals, poverty, and the environment and, thereby, do everything possible to improve the world. The sages of the Talmud used the principle of tikkun olam to enact various laws to help society (e.g., Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 32a, 34b, 40b, 41b, 45a,b).

There are three festivals in Judaism. Passover is seven days, five of those days are intermediate days ( chol hamoed ); Sukkot is seven days (there is another holiday on day eight), six of those intermediate days; and Shavuot is only one day, with no intermediate days. Only a limited amount of work is permitted on the intermediate days; working in the field, for example, would not be permitted. Why does Shavuot not have intermediate days? The Midrash provides the answer: Shavuot falls at a time of year (usually around May or early June) when the farmers have much work to do in the fields, therefore it is only one day. The other festivals occur when farmers have no work to do in the fields (Sifri on Deuteronomy 16:16).

The Talmud recognizes the importance of work. Even a wealthy woman who could afford many servants was required to do some work since idleness is seen as leading to mental illness and or sexual immorality (Babylonian Talmud, Kethuboth 59b), or a major cause of death (Babylonian Talmud, Avot D’Rabbi Noson 11:1). The Talmud instructs us to love work and compares work to the Torah; both were given with a covenant (Avot D’Rabbi Noson 11:1). This is derived from the fact that the word “ bris ” (covenant) is used in Exodus (31:17) after stating that a person should work for six days and rest on the Sabbath. Torah study combined with an occupation was ideal since “the exertion required for both makes sin forgotten” (Babylonian Talmud, Avot, 2:2). The Talmud states: Great is labor for it honors the workman (Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 49b); Skin a carcass in the street and receive wages and do not say I am an important person and this type of work is beneath my dignity (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Bathra 110a).

The Midrash (Midrash Rabbah Genesis 74:12) might be using some hyperbole here in its view that “work is more beloved than the merit of the Patriarchs since the latter saves property but work saves lives.” This is homiletically derived from the verse (Genesis 31: 42) spoken by Jacob to Laban ― Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law had planned to harm Jacob for running away with his entire family: “If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty handed. God saw my affliction and the labor of my hands, so he rebuked you last night.” In this verse, the merit of Abraham and Isaac is linked to Jacob not being sent away from Laban’s home empty-handed; God saw the “labor” of Jacob’s hands and therefore would not allow Laban to harm him.

The Talmud advocates an effective, functioning marketplace. Society cannot be productive without markets that allow people to buy and sell goods. Berkovits (1983: 16-17) describes how the Talmudic sages used takanot hashuk (enactment for the marketplace) as a legal device to ensure the proper functioning of the marketplace. For example, the rabbis discuss the case of someone who recognizes his property in someone else’s possession and it is known that the first party was indeed robbed. The person who currently possesses the stolen property purchased it innocently not realizing that it was stolen. According to Torah law, the true owner would simply take back his property after producing witnesses that it belonged to him. However, this would mean that everyone would be afraid to purchase goods in the marketplace. How can any buyer know whether the seller truly owns the merchandise on sale? In order to ensure that the marketplace would function, the rabbis used the principle of takanot hashuk and ruled that the true owner swears to the court how much he paid for the merchandise and buys it back. This way the person who innocently purchased the stolen goods does not have to take a loss (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kama 114b-115a).


The Torah (Leviticus 19:2) states, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” This is the well-known principle of Imitatio Dei . Since humankind was made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and God is holy, everyone has the obligation to be holy. The Hebrew word kadosh , which is translated as holy, is used countless times in the Bible. In Exodus (19:6) the Israelites are commanded to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Hertz (1992:497) believes that the command of “You shall be holy” is linked directly to precepts such as consideration for the disadvantaged, honesty in business, paying wages on time, equal justice for all, loving one’s fellow human being, and the prohibition against tale bearing and malice because it is a “regulative principle in the everyday lives of men and women.” Hertz adds that “Man is never nearer the Divine than in his compassionate moments.” Holiness is thus an overarching theme that relates to truth, justice, compassion, and respect for human dignity. According to Sacks (2005: 135), responsibility is the “greatest overarching theme” of the Torah. Responsibility can also be seen as part of Imitatio Dei and is a way of living a spiritual/holy life. The verse from Joshua (1:8) cited above stating that the “book of the Torah shall not depart out of your mouth; but you shall meditate therein day and night” is a way of encouraging people to act with spirituality and holiness.

Nachmanides (Leviticus 19:2) believes that the admonition to be holy is a general, wide-ranging commandment that follows the specific, individual precepts of the Torah. The Torah lists numerous precepts but it is still quite possible for someone to follow the letter of the law, but not its spirit. In fact a person could obey the individual mitzvot and still become a “ naval b’reshut haTorah ” (a disgusting person within the permissible framework of the Torah). For example, one might become a glutton and drunk but only eat permitted foods. One can easily lead a life that is not condoned by the Torah yet follow every precept. There are too many ways to get around the law. This is why it is necessary to have a law that simply states that one should be holy. Being holy is about following the spirit and spirituality of the Torah and leading a moral, compassionate, and honorable life.

The opposite of kadosh is tamei (unclean / defiled). The Torah lists forbidden sexual relationships such as incest and bestiality that can make one tamei . These practices along with idolatry are what caused the Land of Israel to “vomit out its inhabitants” (Leviticus 18: 24-25). The Israelites were warned not to defile the land by unholiness, immorality, social corruption, or violence (Leviticus 20:22; Numbers 35: 34-35) or they would also be expelled.

The core values cited in this paper ― compassion, peace, human dignity, integrity, justice, and industriousness ― are not only for individuals but also for organizations and even apply to economic systems. A for-profit company has to be concerned with making a profit for its shareholders. The fiduciary responsibilities of a CEO (as well as the Board of Trustees of a company) certainly involve making a profit; after all, a for-profit company is supposed to earn a profit for the shareholders. However, as can be seen in the mission statement of many firms, CEOs are expected to follow an ethical compass. Without an ethical compass, a firm will find itself traveling on a road to destruction. Note how many firms got into serious trouble during the Great Recession of 2008. Corporate social responsibility, business ethics, and sustainability have become mantras of many for-profit companies.

It is hoped that executives and leaders interested in making their organizations financially as well as ethically strong will use the core values of the Torah. No one wants a Jeremiah-like figure to say: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness and his upper stories by injustice” (Jeremiah 22:13). Jeremiah did indeed assert that a house (i.e., country or organization) that is not built on justice and righteousness, one that does not protect the robbed, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, will become a “house of desolation.” One wonders what would Jeremiah say to the numerous executives at financial institutions that made a profit off deceptive loans and foreclosures? These executives live in mansions and the widow has lost her home to foreclosure.


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The author is a Professor of Business and Marketing at Department of Finance and Business Management, School of Business at the Brooklyn College of the City University of New York


from the April 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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