Dear Rabbi,

As I understand it, we are not allowed to work on Shabbat. So how is it that the cantor and the rabbi can be paid for their Shabbat duties? Is it not considered work?

Answer:

You are correct that paid work is not permitted on Shabbat and major Jewish holidays, and no one – not even the cantor and the rabbi – is exempt from the laws of Shabbat.

Most jobs fall into one or more of the 39 categories of work not permitted on Shabbat, such as writing, building, etc. (See The Shabbat Laws and The 39 Melachot.)

But there are also jobs which do not include forbidden activities, such as babysitting, waiting tables or house-sitting.

The main problem with jobs in this second category is that one may end up writing (which is not permitted on Shabbat) to keep an accurate log of money owed. To prevent this, work for pay on Shabbat is forbidden, even if the work itself is technically permissible.1

Nevertheless, a person can be paid a general sum for several days’ work, including Shabbat.

For example, the rabbi is paid a set monthly salary which includes his Shabbat duties. Similarly, a babysitter who works during the week, and also on Shabbat, should be paid a set fee for the week. The same with a cantor.

Another approach is to pay a set amount for travel, preparation and Shabbat duties. Because the payment is not being broken down, the worry about writing to record the money owed is removed.

But it’s important not to single Shabbat out. So, one cannot break down the payment and say, “For Shabbat you are receiving $500 and for the weekday work $200.” It needs to be “For all your work during this period of time you are being paid $700.”2

See Why So Many Don'ts on Shabbat? from our Shabbat: An Island in Time minisite.