Competing Obligations Can Create Harmony: Physical and Spiritual Sustenance in the Workplace

Rabbi Aaron Alexander
November 29, 2012
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The following responsum (teshuvah) was written by Rabbi Israel Isserlein, an Austrian luminary who lived from 1390 – 1460, and author of the Terumat Ha-Deshen.  Along with his rabbinical duties, he was known to dabble in money lending, an important piece of information for this particular piece. This is the fifth responsum in his collection. Translator’s note: This translation is not word for word and includes stylistic details that make it an easier and more fluid read.

Question: When an observant Jew is requested or chooses to meet with city officials so that he can collect on a debt, and the officials keep him engaged for quite some time with bartering and such, and he cannot find a way to leave (gracefully) unless he is to forfeit the money owed him–and also, he needs to drink with them–such that the time for reciting minha (afternoon required prayer) expires, can he stay with the officials, skip minha, and pray ma’ariv (the evening service) twice?

Before we go any further, let’s call a spade a spade. I imagine this question smacks of exactly the kind strictly legal and myopic tendency that drives so many of us crazy when it comes to crafting meaningful and intentional religious life.  Seriously, it’s just one afternoon service! Why not invest energy on something more important?! Before we look at Rabbi Isserlein’s answer, take another look at this question. Sit with it for a moment, and ask yourself: what is he really asking about? Is this truly just about minha?  Or, is something else much larger at stake?

Answer: It seems that it would actually be better to pray the evening service twice. Even though, the concensus position in the authoritative codes rules that a person may not make up a prayer (the Amidah) when it is deliberately skipped. This is a ruling based on the rabbinic interpretation of Kohelet 1:15. In this case the situation is more likely defined as ‘outside of one’s control and not intentional’.

We infer this from an example in Tractate Moed Katan (14a), where one willfully forgoes the rabbinic obligation before a festival to ‘clean up’, i.e, get a shave and haircut, in order to spend that time finding something valuable he lost so as to not sustain financial loss.  Counterintuitively, this person is considered someone who was compelled, and not willfully trangressing (even though he made a conscious choice in that moment to forgo his rabbinic obligation in favor of finding his lost object)…

The Terumat HaDeshen offers a few more examples of situations that look intentional but are viewed legally as involuntary.


He also proves that the pursuit of a salary, physical sustenance, is considered a mitzvah, an obligation.

…From all of this we determine that our case is not one of an intentional transgression. Though, one could argue that when it comes to prayer–which is serving God–one shouldn’t forgo it because of financial concerns. For after all,  even Torah scholars recognize there is a time for learning and separate time for prayer, i.e, both are essential but it is prayer and God’s response that brings us the sustenance we need. We should value the immediate loss against the eternal loss.  In other words, God will provide. And if this theological claim is true, maybe the person was wrong, should have left the city officials and prayed the afternoon service in its proper time.

But this is not the case. It may very well be mistaken and even an involuntary transgression, but it is not an intentional subversion of the law…. a person in this situation may, with advance intention, utilize the ruling in the Talmud and codes addressed to such a person, and pray the ma’ariv service twice.

It is a remarkable answer. I’d like to make five points relevant to the workplace and religious life based on Rabbi Isserlein’s Torah:
1) As you may have deduced by now, I don’t think this question is about minha at all. Minha is simply the avenue to making a broader point about communal life and conflicting obligations. Each of us is regularly asked to tangibly prioritize our core values in the workplace. That requires, first, that we identify and own the essential ideals that animate us, inform us, and influence us, to the extent that when conflict does arise, we have a sense of what it takes to both be true to ourselves while still recognizing that no decision is made in a ‘me only’ vacuum.
2) The freedom to choose, at least in halakhic decision making, is not as clear as one might want it to be.  In other words, the fact that I am presented with two options doesn’t necessarily mean I actually have a choice to make. Sometimes the gravity of the situation is so potent that only one option is viable.  This truth should by no means alleviate all accountability, but it does give perspective to the complexity and dynamism of any one moment.  When we merit being part of a team, sometimes decisions are outside of our immediate control, and inevitable.
3) While I didn’t explicitly translate the piece about career/work as mitzvah, it is quite essential.  We too often create untenable and binary poles that pit religious life and worklife against one another.  The Terumat HaDeshen is asking us to imagine something radical, yet rational.  Namely, the workspace is just as much a tapestry of religiosity as any other.  Work is mitzvah. What if we also dedicated time to thoughtfully crafting a values-based and mitzvah-driven organization so that every encounter has sacred possibility?  The office, too, ought to be a Torah-filled sanctuary ripe for elevated encounter.  This can happen, it appears, precisely  when we see the office/boardroom/copyroom as a place of true mitzvah.
4) Many Jewish organizations, at least in my experience, too quickly exclaim, “because that’s the way we’ve always done it, so that’s what we’ll do.” No! The legal move made by the Terumat HaDeshen transcends its particularism to create a novel paradigm for religiously-obligated decision making. By allowing the money lender to utilize a ruling, intentionally and in advance, normatively employed for people who find themselves in an ‘after-the-fact’ situation, he asks each of us to consider that ‘business as usual’ can’t become an idol in and of itself.  Just because it is codified in a certain way and within a specific context doesn’t mean it holds eternal authority and truth. Similarly, some institutional policies and modes of behavior–often enacted for very good reasons–outlive their own utility. Of course they aren’t easy to let go of for a myriad of reasons.  Still, if one of them doesn’t enhance the core goals and values of the institution… let if go!
5) Even the intentional–yet compelled–decision doesn’t dismiss all religious obligation.  The rabbinic concept of tashlumim, ‘do overs’, becomes the operative halakhic response.  In this case, the evening prayer is still said twice.  What would it look like to not only recognize that we must sometimes sacrifice one core value for another, but to also imagine, simultaneously, the space for reintroducing into our lives that which was temporarily lost?  This Shabbat can’t meet my internal expectations, but how can I proactively craft holy time for next Shabbat?  An expectation of an all-or-nothing Judaism is nothing short of impossible. It is likely the one way we can intentionally fail.

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Rabbi Aaron Alexander is the Associate Dean of the Ziegler School and Lecturer in Rabbinics and Jewish Law. Along with his academic teaching he gives an early morning class in Halakhah that is recorded for Jewish learners worldwide and posted to www.zieglertorah.org. Rabbi Alexander teaches Talmud and Rabbinical Literature throughout Los Angeles to students of all ages and all walks of life, including a regular class at Ikar. He was a founding staff member at Camp Ramah Darom in 1997, where he worked 10 summers and served on the Board of Directors. He is a certified mashgiach (kosher supervisor) by the the Conservative Movement's Rav Hamachshir program and currently serves on its Committee for Jewish Law and Standards.

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