Rabbi I Have a Problem

Can my Jewish boss make me follow religious practices - like Shabbat - as strictly as he does at work?

An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi tackle issues in contemporary Jewish life


QUESTION:  My boss, who is Orthodox and keeps Shabbat strictly, has asked me not to work on Shabbat because I am Jewish. But he is happy to let non-Jewish staff work for him. There is a weekend seminar I’d really like to take part it. Surely it should be my choice how observant I am.

Rabbi Brawer: There are two issues at hand.

One is the prohibition against doing business on Shabbat. The other is the prohibition against asking another Jew to do forbidden work on Shabbat on one’s behalf.

The first prohibition extends to non-Jewish employees as well. A Jewish-owned business may not remain open on Shabbat even if staffed exclusively by non-Jewish employees. If, however, the business is owned in partnership with a non-Jew, it may remain open on Shabbat, so long as the Jewish owner is absent and agrees that the profit generated from sales on that day go to the non-Jewish partner.

Your Sabbath-observant boss is right to ask you not to work on Shabbat, as it would be halachically and morally wrong to put another Jew to work, particularly when one would not themselves work on Shabbat.

This however raises the question as to how one can employ a rabbi or a cantor over Shabbat? The answer lies in the nature of the work, as well as how the fee is designated.

Since there is nothing in a rabbi or cantor’s job that inherently violates Shabbat (singing and teaching Torah are Shabbat-compliant activities) their roles fall under permitted categories of work.

Additionally, their remuneration should not be designated for their “work” on Shabbat but rather the Shabbat element is rolled into a weekly or monthly wage. This is to avoid any notion that they are profiting from remunerative work on Shabbat.

In the case of a scholar- in-residence who may be paid for a single Shabbat, one can designate their fee for the work involved in preparing their sermons and classes before Shabbat.

Given that the work you describe in your question involves participation in a seminar, I would argue that in this particular situation your boss may show some flexibility. Attending a seminar (if one avoids writing) may not be in the spirit of Shabbat, but it does not strictly contravene the prohibition against labour.

Furthermore, your attendance may in the long term improve your performance, which indirectly will benefit the company, but it does not generate for the company a profit on Shabbat. And so technically you are not working for the business.

If attendance involves travel, that I believe, is your own choice. So long as it is feasible for you arrive before Shabbat or to walk on Shabbat, your decision to do otherwise would not implicate your boss.

Rabbi Brawer is Neubauer chief executive of Hillel, Tufts University

Rabbi Romain: You obviously feel frustrated and reckon that your religious life is none of his business. But you need to remember that, for his part, he feels under a religious obligation not only to observe Shabbat himself, but not to encourage any other Jew to break it, otherwise it will be his sin as much as yours.

In this instance, though, you are not being forced into breaking Shabbat by an insensitive boss, but want to undertake a project which you would 
find interesting and enriching.

Perhaps Leo Baeck, the great German rabbi who came to England after the war, can help. He used to talk of “Sabbath moments”: that even if we do not keep all of Shabbat, we can keep parts of it.

This might be lighting the Friday night candles, or having some time for prayer or study on Saturday afternoon, or making havdalah in the evening. It is not a full Shabbat, but it is Shabbat-conscious, acknowledging and celebrating the Sabbath as much as you can.

As for your point about non-Jewish staff working, providing they are able to enjoy their own Sabbath (or have time off midweek if they are not religious), there is no reason why they have to observe the Jewish one.

But your question begs the larger issue of what is your normal Sabbath observance on other weekends? Assuming you are not Orthodox, in which case you would not have this dilemma, it can vary immensely.

This is not because there are no communal routines — all Reform and Liberal synagogues have erev Shabbat and Shabbat morning services, often shiurim too — but because we allow personal understanding of what the key words “rest” and “work” mean for individual activities. 

For instance, digging up the garden on Shabbat afternoon might be wonderful relaxation for some people, but a dreaded chore for others (so the former could do it, and the latter should not).

Similarly, doing DIY around the house might be a nightmare for some, and to be avoided on Shabbat, but for a person stuck behind a computer screen all week, it is a blessed joy.

Ultimately, it is your boss who will decide on this seminar, and if he says no, then you can ask that he finds other ways for you to learn the new skills you will be missing out on. Meantime, you can build up your Sabbath moments.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue 

If you have a problem to put to our rabbis, please ring 020 7415 1676 or email with details

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