Praying on Top of a Tree

Alex Braver
November 5, 2012
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We’ve come to expect our workplaces to offer us vacation days, sick days, an hour for lunch, and perhaps a few other breaks during the day.  So, if you work in a Jewish workplace, do you get breaks for reciting the Shema or the Amidah? What if your workplace is at the top of a tree?

The rabbis of the Talmud seem to have envisioned a world that worked this way-in which employers and employees negotiated the delicate balance between their various religious and secular needs.  Employers had a right to a job well done, and to workers who would work to the best of their ability for the full amount of time agreed upon in advance.  Yet they also had a responsibility to provide an environment that was supportive of the workers’ religious needs.  Employees had a right to a workplace where they could practice their religious rituals and fulfill their religious obligations.  Yet they also had to perform them in a way that interfered as little as possible with the task for which they were hired.

This balancing act seems in some ways related to the problems of the modern Jewish workplace, and of Jews in workplaces in general.  How much responsibility does a Jew have to fit their religious life and religious needs into their employers’ schedules?  How much responsibility does a Jewish employer have to create an environment conducive to the religious expression and growth of their employees?

This dilemma is delicately managed in the following beraita, a rabbinic source almost two thousand years old that appears in the Talmud.  It discusses the ritual obligations of workers and their employers while they are at work.  Do workers need to interrupt whatever it is they are doing to go and pray at the appropriate times dictated by Jewish law if they are working in places that are dangerous or might not allow for full concentration?  Or can they simply stay where they are and recite their prayers there?

“Craftspeople recite the Shema on top of a tree on top of a stone building, and pray the Amidah on top of an olive tree on top of a fig tree, but for all other types of trees, they go down and pray.  But an employer, no matter where they are working, must go down and pray, because their mind will not be settled.”

(B.Berachot 16a)

According to the text, there are:
(a) Two types of ritual activities being described.  There is Shema (which can be recited while seated) and Amidah (which must be said while standing).
(b) There are two types of places they may be performed. There are places that seem relatively safe (for Shema: sitting on top of any tree or stone building; for Amidah: standing on top of specifically olive or fig trees, both of which seem seem safer to stand on) and places that seem relatively dangerous (standing on other types of less stable trees).
(c) There are two types of people.  There are craftspeople who are being hired to do a task (in the context of this text, probably poorer workers), and employers (in this context, presumed to have more time and money on their hands).

Consider the case of (a) the Shema, (b) in a safe place, (c) said by a craftsperson.  Some Jewish rituals can be entrusted to people to do on their own, as they go about their business-they can multitask and say the Shema on the top of a tree while doing their work.  It may not be the most fulfilling Jewish experience of their lives to mutter the Shema under their breaths while working high up in a tree, but it is a sacrifice they’re asked to make in order to respect their employer who is paying them to be there and complete a task.

Now consider the case of (a) the Amidah, (b) said in an unsafe place (c) by a craftsperson.  Other rituals require that the employer make special allowances for their religious needs.  When a situation is not conducive to a positive Jewish experience (assuming you find falling out of a tree to not be a positive experience), the employer is obliged to make a concession and interrupt their employees’ work so that they can fulfill their Jewish obligation.  The Talmud seems to be telling us that the employer must acknowledge that the job for which they’ve hired these workers is less important than these workers’ spiritual lives.  The rabbis are teaching us that a meaningful experience of connecting with the Divine sometimes requires a break from the work we think is so important, and that it is not the workers’ responsibility alone to find a way to cram these moments into their schedules, and that it is an employers’ responsibility to foster them.

Finally, consider the case of (a) the Amidah, (b) said anywhere, (c) by an employer.  There is a special stringency for the employers, people who have the available resources to hire workers and the free time to fulfill their ritual obligations in relative ease.  Whereas the poorer and busier craftspeople have a special allowance to say the Amidah up in some of the safer types of trees, despite the fact that this might interfere with their concentration in this obligatory prayer, the employers must descend to pray where it is safer and easier to concentrate.  With their greater resources and availability comes a greater responsibility to pursue the integrity and seriousness of their spiritual lives, to not cut any corners.

The image of a Jewish worker praying on top of a tree is a powerful one.  Balancing between God above and their employer below, between concentration on prayer and concentration on footing, between their need for money and their need for meaning, the Jew perched on a branch reciting the Shema and the Amidah dramatically represents the balancing act that modern Jews in far less visually dramatic synagogues, offices, schools, and organizations must negotiate between the different parts of their identities, between their careers and their faith, between the work of sustaining the Jewish community and the work of sustaining their souls.  Jewish employers must remember their responsibilities to their workers, to provide them with the time, space, and resources to find fulfilling Jewish experiences.  And Jewish employees must be willing, every now and then, to mutter the Shema under their breath as they go about their daily work routines, sacrificing some of their own Jewish experience for the sake of their work.  The consequences of a misstep in this balancing act can be difficult and painful, but hopefully less so than falling out of a tree.

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Alex Braver is a rabbinic fellow at B'nai Jeshurun and a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has also served as a student chaplain, studied at Yeshivat Hadar, and tutored remedial math and English at a charter school in Boston. He graduated from Brandeis University in 2009 with majors in history and politics.

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