Rabbi I Have a Problem

Should I work occasionally on Shabbat if I am struggling to find a job?

An Orthodox and Reform rabbi answer questions on contemporary Jewish life


Question: I graduated from university nearly a year ago and I've been finding it hard to get a job. I was recently offered one but it involved some occasional work on Saturdays and I have never worked on Shabbat. After wrestling with my conscience, I turned it down but I am beginning to wonder if I will ever get something suitable

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

You face a very real challenge and one that countless Jews faced before you, particularly eastern European immigrants to Britain and the United States at the turn of the 20th century.

Stories abound about Shabbat-observant Jews who had to seek new employment on an almost weekly basis because of their religious commitment. Many, understandably, could not bear this pressure and ultimately gave in. Others combined extraordinary faith and stubbornness and held out.

But it wasn't just immigrants from eastern Europe who struggled to keep Shabbat. During the latter part of the 19th century Poland, particularly around the large urbanised centres like Warsaw and Lodz, Jews experienced the effects of a rapidly growing industry. This radical change to the economic landscape drove many Jews to work on Shabbat.

The writings of the leading Chasidic Rebbe of the time, Rabbi Yehudah Alter Leib of Gur (1847 -1905), are shot through with insights into the beauty and sanctity of Shabbat. It was his non-confrontational way of urging Jews to reclaim the sabbath.

For Rabbi Yehudah Leib, Shabbat is far more than a day of rest. It is a day of uncovering the essence of who we are. Shabbat, he frequently asserted, is not the means through which we rest for the coming week but rather it is the end and purpose of all our work. Shabbat is the moment when we cease striving and celebrate just being.

I cannot promise if you keep Shabbat, you will eventually find work. But I can assure you that if you betray your principles by working on Shabbat, you will lose a part of yourself that will be very hard to reclaim. Be true to yourself and you can never go wrong.

You have held on this far despite your growing anxiety and disappointment. This speaks volumes about your sense of conviction. I would urge you to hold on to your principles and have faith something good will come your way. Some of the most important qualities employers seek in employees are a strong work ethic, integrity and commitment. Provided you are prepared to work hard, I would hope an enlightened employer might look favourably on your religious principles, seeing in you an extraordinary young individual of strong convictions and the courage to defend them.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

Full marks to you for sticking by your principles. Not all would share your approach, but if it is important for you and one of the religious yardsticks by which you live, then you should try to preserve it.

This still leaves many options: one is to contact an organisation such as Work Avenue, which can assist people looking for jobs compatible with Shabbat. Another is to approach firms that are known for their flexible working contracts. With many now operating on a Sunday or in the evenings, it should be easier than in previous decades to arrange a rota that suits you.

It is also worth approaching firms with Jewish owners who will understand the issue and may be more accommodating. It is certainly worth speaking to your rabbi, who should know who is who in the congregation and give you some introductions or put an advert on your behalf in the shul newsletter. The rabbi approaching someone within the community will not guarantee you a position, but may at least get you an interview and allow you to shine. Matchmaking is part of our job spec, and it is not just for marriages!

You do not say what sort of work you are seeking; it may be that your current area of expertise is not conducive to varying Shabbat times, in which case you might consider heading in a different direction, retraining or working for a Jewish institution.

Perhaps, just to cover all bases, you might reckon that this is a good reason for making aliyah and living in a country where the Sabbath really does mark the end of the working week and time off for individuals to pursue religious or secular pursuits.

In contrast, there will be those who feel similar to you but who are willing to make compromises, or who feel they have no choice but to do so. It does not have to be an all or nothing approach, and even if they have to work occasional Saturdays, they can still keep the remaining Shabbatot intact.

Even when they do have to work on a Shabbat, they can still observe what the great German Reform rabbi, Leo Baeck, called "Sabbath moments", such as making kiddush on Friday night or celebrating havdalah on Saturday evening. One can work on the Sabbath without giving up the Sabbath.

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