The Jewish Ethicist: Long Hours
How many hours of work is too many?
Q. My hours of work at my law firm seem to be endless. How much work is too much, leaving too little time for spiritual pursuits?
A. The need for a fair and transparent work hour policy was evident already in the time of the sages of the mishnah, 2,000 years ago. The mishnah in tractate Bava Metzia states: "One who hires workers and told them to arrive early or stay late, if it is a place where it is not customary to arrive early or stay late, he cannot compel them." (1)
What then is a "standard" work day in a place where there is no custom to extend it? The Talmud tells us that it begins at daybreak, and continues until some time before nightfall, in order to allow the workers to arrive home before dark. (On Shabbat eve the worker needs time to make minimal Shabbat preparations before sundown, so he must leave earlier.) (2)
It's clear that this is quite a long workday nearly 12 hours on average. Certainly this is not customary today, though in some professions, including yours, 70 hour work weeks are not too unusual. On the other hand, it is a workday that is clearly delineated. While the worker is admonished to be prompt and hard working, his obligations are clearly defined, and the employer is not allowed to exceed them to compel the worker to work longer if custom or agreement doesn't stipulate this.
It is this aspect that is most often a problem today. Average work hours are much less than in the time of the mishnah, but probably more workers today find that their workday seems to be "endless," as you state, because they feel that they are on call even when the workday is done. Many workplaces don't provide any clear guidelines for fair working hours for professionals and managers; some have this problem for shift workers as well.
The Shulchan Arukh (authoritative Code of Jewish law) states: "After you leave the synagogue [following morning prayers], go to the house of study, and establish a time for learning. And this time must be fixed, not to be missed even if there is an opportunity to earn much". In the next chapter, it tells us that a person should then go to work, but must remember that work is of secondary importance to Torah. (3)
This is the same Shulchan Arukh which later on tells us the standard workday of the mishnah. (4) We see that making work of secondary importance to Torah doesn't require us to devote many hours to activities which are devoted solely to God's service, like prayer and Torah study. But it does require a commitment, having certain times that are sacrosanct and to which workday concerns cannot intrude.
Of course the main refuge we have from our work lives is the Shabbat. But even on weekdays, which are appropriately devoted to work and livelihood, we need certain times free from the burden of employment.
The ideal working situation is one that leaves ample time for other aspects of life: family life, helping others, prayer and study, social life, and constructive recreation. But everyone has to make a living, and it is a fact of life that some kinds of work require long hours on the job. In these cases, the most important thing is to ensure that the obligations of the worker are as clearly defined as possible. A workday with no clear end is exploitative to the worker, and often backfires as workers engage in unproductive competition to put in hours without productivity as well as "undertime" activities meant to camouflage leisure or errands as work.
We wrote in a previous column that keeping a worker later than necessary turns often into gratuitous "busy work", which Jewish law forbids as a kind of unseemly domination of the employee.
The ideal working situation is a job which in itself contributes to mankind, and also leaves adequate time for other dimensions of God's service, religious and otherwise. But even those whose livelihood requires a long work day can keep their personal commitments, as long as their work obligations are clearly defined and make their non-working hours truly their own.
SOURCES: (1) Mishnah Bava Metzia 7:1. (2) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 83b. (3) Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim 155 and 156. (4) Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 331:1
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