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One of the greatest paradoxes of a life of faith concerns the need to work for a living. If G‑d is the source of all blessings, why toil to earn a livelihood? And if we do work, how can we avoid the thought that it is our labor alone that produces material results? We seem torn between absolute passivity and the denial of G‑d’s involvement in the world.

Thus the believer engages in what can be termed “passive labor.” In the opening verses of Vayak’hel, Moses instructs the people of Israel:

Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of sabbaths to G‑d . . .1

Not “six days shall you work,” but “six days shall work be done.” The passive form suggests that even during the week’s six workdays, when the Jew is permitted and obligated to work, he should be occupied with, but not preoccupied by, his material endeavors.

This is how chassidic teaching interprets the verse, “If you will eat the labor of your hands, you will be happy and it will be well with you.”2 What King David is implying, say the chassidic masters, is that the labor in which a person engages for his material needs (so that “you will eat”) should be only “of your hands”—an activity of the outer man, not an inward involvement. One’s “hands” and “feet” should attend to one’s material endeavors, while one’s thoughts and feelings remain bound up with G‑dly things. This is the same concept as that implied by the verse, “Six days shall work be done.” One does not do the work; it is “done,” as if of its own accord. The heart and mind are elsewhere, and only the person’s practical faculties are engaged in the work.

The Jew works not to “make a living,” but only to fashion a keli (“vessel”) to receive G‑d’s blessings. This is what the Torah means when it says, “And the L‑rd your G‑d will bless you in all that you do”.3 Man is not sustained by his own efforts, but through G‑d’s blessing; it is only that G‑d desires that His blessing should realize itself in and through “all that you do.” Man’s work merely provides a natural channel for the divine blessing of sustenance, and man must at all times remember that it is no more than a channel. Though his hands prepare the channel, his mind and heart must remain focused on the source of the blessing.

The chassidic masters take this a step further. In truth, they say, man should really not be allowed to work at all. For of G‑d it is said, “I fill the heavens and the earth”4 and "the whole earth is full of His glory."5 The proper response to the ever-present nature of G‑d would be to stand in absolute passivity. To do otherwise would be to be guilty of what the Talmud calls “making gestures before the king.”6 If a person standing in the presence of a king were to do anything other than devote his attention to the king, he would surely forfeit his life. So it is only because the Torah itself permits, indeed commands, “Six days shall work be done” and “the L‑rd your G‑d will bless you in all that you do,” that work is permissible and desirable. But to go beyond the level of involvement sanctioned by the Torah—beyond the “passive labor” of making a “vessel”—that would be, in the first place, to show a lack of faith that human sustenance comes from G‑d; and second, it would be “making gestures before the king”—an act of rebellion in the face of G‑d.

The Double Shabbat

This explains the phrase shabbat shabbaton—“a sabbath of sabbaths”—used by Moses in the above verse. Shabbat is not a day of rest following six days of active labor. Rather, it is a “sabbath of sabbaths,” a Shabbat following six days that are themselves “sabbaths” of sorts—days of passive labor, in which one’s work engages only one’s external self, with the true focus of one’s attention in a higher place.

Indeed, a true day of rest can only be one that follows such a week. Citing the verse, “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work,”7 the Sages say: “On the Shabbat, a person should regard himself as if all his work were complete.”8 This is true rest—rest in which one is utterly free of all workday concerns. If, however, during the six days a person had been preoccupied with material concerns, on the seventh day anxieties will invade him; even if his body ceases work, his mind will not be at rest. On the other hand, if he has given his work its proper place during the week, the light of Shabbat will illuminate him, and it will be shabbat shabbaton—a Shabbat twice over. For Shabbat will then permeate his whole week, and when the day itself arrives it will have a double sanctity.

The Day After Yom Kippur
This also explains the context in which Moses addresses the above verses to the assembled congregation of Israel.

Our Sages elaborate on how the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) atoned for, and rectified, the sin of the Golden Calf. Ostensibly similar (both the Calf and the Mishkan were a “consecration” of physical matter, particularly gold), the Mishkan was, in truth, the very opposite of the Calf: the Golden Calf was a deification of the material, while the Mishkan was a subjugation of the material to serve the Divine. So on the day after the first Yom Kippur, immediately following G‑d’s full forgiveness of Israel’s sin, Moses conveyed G‑d’s instructions to the people to build Him a “dwelling-place” in their midst; that very day, the people donated their gold, silver and copper to the making of the Mishkan.

First, however, Moses gathered the people of Israel and commanded them in G‑d’s name: “Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of sabbaths to G‑d . . .” This implies that, like the Mishkan, this commandment is a refutation of, and atonement for, the sin of idolatry.

Maimonides9 traces the origins of idolatry to the fact that Divine Providence is channeled through natural forces and objects. The original idolaters recognized that the sun, moon and the stars derived their power to nourish the earth from G‑d, yet they attached divine significance to them. Their error was to regard them as objects of worship, whereas they are no more than the instruments of G‑d, like "an axe in the hands of the hewer."10

In a certain sense, the excessive preoccupation with business and the material world is also a form of idolatry. For this, too, involves the error of attaching significance to what is no more than a vessel or channel of Divine blessing. The materialist’s preoccupation with material things is a form of bowing the head, of misplaced worship. Only when a person sees his workday effort for what it truly is—a way of creating a natural channel for the blessings of G‑d—will his work take the passive form and the focus of his thoughts be on G‑d alone.

This is how idolatry—whether in its overt or its more subtle forms—is atoned. Six days of passive work in the sense of mental detachment and the realization that human work is only an instrument of G‑d, culminating in and inspired by a “sabbath of sabbaths” that focuses utterly on the source of our blessings—are the corrective for, and the denial of, the instincts of idolatry.

Chagigah 5b.
Rashi on this verse, citing Mechilta.
Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 1:1.
From Torah Studies (Kehot 1986), an adaptation of the Rebbe's talks by the United Kingdom's chief rabbi.
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Brynje New York via December 17, 2015

Hard to believe that many are never paid for their work, and there are some unfortunate souls who are are unjustly routed from their right to work onto another direction Many times tomatoes are cut short of being pitched at some who apparently never seem to be at any particular occupation. So many work online, or at night and others make no big deal of what kind of work they do. Then there are those who love to be seen doing before one and all. Sure, but many are also modest and do not make a big to do about the kind of work they do for obvious reasons. When its about activism for the sake of community & the human condition and pressing for betterment..
What we see isn't always what we are actually seeing, THIS is the point of what starts Lashon Hara - Rechilut many times. We must train ourselves to SEE with better eyes and feel with better senses, and hear closely what is truly important for us to harken onto .When any of these fall short we are in serious trouble from observing a world in a limited manner. We will likely also fail to know our communities and how they connect with one another. When in doubt we have to ask Hashem what's truly before us. Reply

Anonymous Toronto, Canada September 10, 2011

Passive Labor We work to keep in pace with life. Through work great deeds are done. It is these great deeds that G-d will judge us on. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma March 2, 2011

retired I think in being retired and if one is in good enough health the work that can be done is to devote oneself fully to one's passions, and hopefully this will include the support and gifting of others with one's skills that does provide personal and ongoing help to others.

It seems a privilege then to be able to work purely for love in retirement and I would think there is always some contribution to be made, if just to engage in passions that one once did not have time for, or to learn something new.

So many do long to have the time to do those things, they never got to do, and for some, it's a massive opportunity to give back and to give to oneself in deepening ways. Reply

Anonymous old Saybrook, CT/USA February 28, 2011

Retirement Of what does one's obligation to labor for six days consist when you are retired? Reply

Laura Amarillo, TX February 26, 2011

The Mishkan I was just blown away to think of it... same people, same gifts of gold... purposed diametrically opposite! Which just gets back to the fact that goodness lies in the 'hearts' of mankind! Everything we do and say can be for good or evil, the difference is in how our hearts are purposed! Reply

john smith fort lauderdale, fl February 25, 2011

monetary fiscal policy the US dollar IS the world currency and has been for a long time. it is a love/hate relationship people have all over the world. work can either be someone chasing money like a degenerate gambler or doing what you like to do to earn and survive. chasing G-d has more value than just printing "IN G-D WE TRUST" on a piece of material.
money is something Kings/people invented for commerce and trade otherwise G-d would have created gold coins on the seventh day instead of Shabbat. placing values is for G-d and him alone, all the rest are just opinions.
more people are under the illusion of what is a value, a need, a want. of course, this is my opinion which is useless and meaningless. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma February 24, 2011

all that IS The stars, the moon, the sun, the myriad acts and aspects of creation, are here to be worshipped, as part of the miracle of what IS. We need to define and redefine, Worship.

I think there's a line between idolatry and the LOVE that feels it's all Divine. I do not worship a statue, but surely any work of art is a creative act that is in itself a mirroring of the Creation itself, and as such, must be honored. Why we have ART Galleries, and do admire art. We do not worship art, but we worship the Spirit that inhabits the artist, and all that is created.

Passion, and heart, do inhabit art and we see the word ART itself in heart, and I am saying it's not random, this clay we all use so freely that is truly Magic.

There is a greater Hand that guides our Hands in all that we do, and so in that recognition we do bend in AWE, Excitement, and LOVE.

maybe it is not random that Handel wrote the Messiah: Hand EL. And that we are not given more, it is said, than we can handle. Reply

Lori Port Medway, Canada February 22, 2011

Work I have always struggled with work--finding it, keeping it, succeeding at it--and worrying about it every moment, as if the worry itself would help me succeed or count in some mystical way. Finally I understand why my whole approach has been in error. Finally I can move forward! Reply

alex toronto, canada March 28, 2009

passive labor I believe that the idea of work is to do that which fills you and benefits the world.
The type of work that we do is irrelevant, the important focus is the connection to our sense of human dignity and helping to create a better world in all that we do and in so doing we are not laboring, but we are creating along with G-d. Reply

Anonymous MD July 26, 2006

Passive Labor By 'passive' labor, I think the writer is not saying that our work should be mindless and unfeeling. It seems that Moses experienced quite a lot of passion in his work. I think the writer is conveying the idea that our work is transient ... not ever lasting. But, for a lot of reasons, it is difficult for humans to remember. We are not to worship the created things .. and our work was 'created' for us therfore not to be worshiped. Human work has meaning, it blesses us and it blesses others. But G_d is the giver of all. Do you think we should all seek to find the labor that G-d has given (temperment, talent, ability, and opportunity) the individual to do. Reply

mark cape town, south africa March 3, 2005

'passive work' Interesting read, however I have often been told, in various shiurim (Torah classes), that one has to 'earn' the right to a shabbat. I have always thought it was meant that one's labour was not passive but very much active - ' the sweat of your brow...'
Another thought and that is that in a community there should be those whose function it is to study Torah and others to provide for the Torah scholars.
I understand the outward efforts being directed at labour as explained in the article, but what about the professional person like a doctor, he would have to focus on the active side of being a doctor.
I would be interested in your thoughts, Reply

Agustin Litvak Bethesda, MD March 2, 2005

Passive Labor I must disagree!

The world becomes a better place when people do their jobs with passion; Doctors, Engineers, Social Workers, Aid Workers, have a chance to improve the world and I hope they do.

The key is not detachment about the work, but what is the motivation for the work we do. If it is just a job to subsist, you are right; if it is a job to make as much money as possible, you are right. But if it is a job which we enjoy and have passion about it and it makes the world a better place, then you are wrong! Reply

Laurel Herman Richmond, Va March 1, 2005

Passive work My comment is more in the form of a question. Some of us love our daily jobs; to others their jobs are unbearalbe, causing stress and health problems. I understand that we should find the G-dly in everything but in some cases this is easier said than done. Are we meant to rethink our very stressful jobs and make them work despite all obstcales ? Or maybe cut our losses, start over in a place we are able to do passive work and life can again be redirected to a more peaceful state of mind? Reply

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