Ben Torah in the Workplace

Ben-Torah in the Workplace

Balancing the Challenges, Opportunities & Obligations

Rabbi Fishel Mael, Ph.D.

Once upon a time, there was a fabled job waiting for the ben Torah who was prepared to enter the workplace. He (and it was only he in those days) would start working at this job at 9:00 AM after a learning seder, breakfast with his children, and a minimal commute to and from work. He would be finished working by 5:00 PM, after which he would be free to attend to his family, his learning, his health, and communal activities. His work day would be totally self-contained – he would never bring home work or work-related concerns, and he would be inaccessible to coworkers after hours. He would not be expected to work late, travel for work, work on Sundays, or socialize with coworkers or clients. His income would be sufficient that he would certainly have no need for a second or third job in his “free” time.

Perhaps these idyllic jobs actually existed and supported the economic needs of a ben-Torah’s family. They rarely exist now. For many working bnei Torah, much of what is described above is a dream.  Some of this stems from changes in the workplace, others from changes in expectations and demands upon the family, especially the head of the household. This article discusses these changing demands; how the demands of work can overwhelm other important aspects of life; the value of balancing work and non-work roles; and the steps an individual may consider taking to incorporate more balance into his life. 

[The general concerns in this article apply equally or more so to working women, and they apply to men engaged in klai kodesh roles in many cases. However, for the sake of brevity and focus the specific examples and frames of reference for this article will be primarily men working in secular occupations.]

The Changing Work World

The world of work has changed drastically over the past few decades. The global economy has fostered an intensely competitive work environment that puts a premium on individuals justifying their contributions to their employers by working longer and harder. The sheer number of hours per week that Americans work has risen steadily over this time, from 43.6 hours per week in 1977 to 47.1 in 1997. This does not include (possibly extensive) commuting time.  In addition, advances in information technology such as cell phones, email, and PDAs have contributed to employees being accessible at all times with little freedom from the demands and expectations of clients or supervisors. The result has been an increase in numerous indicators of stress, even among secular workers who generally have fewer competing family, religious, and communal demands than ever before. These indicators include rises in workplace violence, absenteeism, and workers compensation claims. National studies show that well over two-thirds of workers feel that job stress is affecting their health.  Furthermore, a wide range of physical ailments, emotional problems, eating disorders, addictions, and mood disorders have been associated with increased work stress and its encroachment on all aspects of life.  In addition, the more   time required to work in order to get ahead or stay employed, the less time a person will have available for all other aspects of life.

The Orthodox Worker – More or Less Stressed?

In some ways, the Orthodox Jewish worker should have some inoculation from these stresses. He has the potential benefits of a rich community life and the likelihood of seeing friends and acquaintances regularly in shul and at events; access to mentors and rabbanim; the likelihood of marriage with someone sharing similar values about spirituality and having children; Shabbos observance as a built-in safeguard against constant work; and learning Torah as a counterpoint to the obsessive values of the workplace.

Any yet – there are countervailing forces that make the demands on the Orthodox Jewish professional, businessman or employee even more daunting that those of his secular counterpart.  These fall in the areas of financial expenses, time pressures and internal expectations. The financial demands on members of the community are well-documented and are repeated here only for their impact on work choices and work life. Families are larger, increasing the basic expenses needed to support a family, and children will generally require private school tuition. Expectations regarding seminary, shidduchim, weddings and other norms such as summer camps or vacation homes ensure that even the person who wishes to live simply may have to generate money according to others’ expectations. Religious communities tend to congregate in relatively expensive urban areas, and the need for many homes within walking distance to shuls makes housing even more expensive than in adjoining neighborhoods. This may lead some to move to more affordable communities at the cost of a longer and often grueling commute for the family worker(s).

Regarding time, the Orthodox male is expected to work the same hours as his secular counterpart. However, he is likely to have commuted from farther; he probably woke up earlier to daven and perhaps to learn; he may have more family responsibilities, starting with homework, car pools, and spending time with his greater number of children; he has many more joyous and other occasions to attend (weddings, sheva brachos, shiva calls, bar mitzvahs, etc.) than his counterparts; he must somehow fit the errands that others do on Saturdays into his evening hours; and he has an internal obligation to be learning and doing other mitzvos in his “spare” time. The Orthodox male often marries earlier and starts working later (in some cases, much later) in life than his secular counterpart, so that his career often starts when he already has debts, is pressured to cover tuitions, or needs larger housing. In his fifties and sixties he may have an “empty nest” at a later age than his secular counterparts. Even when he does, it will be a mirage, as he is likely to be continuing to provide significant support to married children. Thus, the pressure to work fulltime lasts longer and the period of working for a “nest egg” is often deferred indefinitely. 

The result is that many individuals, despite their valiant efforts to do everything right and to do right by everyone in their lives, feel overwhelmed. They feel that they come up short in many areas. They may perceive their employers or competitors faulting their lack of single-minded devotion to work, or they may feel themselves torn between work and competing demands. They may feel the disdain of those within their communities expecting them to have more money for charity pledges, tuition, and shidduch-related commitments.  They may carry a nagging sense of not learning enough, not doing enough, and not helping enough in the community. There feel a lack of time to rest, to eat properly, to exercise, or to lose weight, and so physical and mental health suffer. They may have a vague or not so vague sense of not spending enough time with their spouses or children. And, when an actual or perceived family crisis occurs, there may be little resilience left to weather the storm.

Other articles and discussions have focused on specific community-wide issues such as the costs of making weddings, the costs of tuition compared to typical incomes, and the mismatch between incomes and the expectations tied to shidduchim. These issues are beyond the scope of this article and somewhat beside the point, as the focus here is on the individual’s need to try to take control of his own life, his own schedule, and his own tachlis. He is responsible within the limits of his own nisyonos to manage the quality of his life and health on a daily basis. This article is for the individual who, in spite of these pressures, wishes to reassert some balance between work and life and not allow work and the obsessive pursuit of parnassa to drown out the ability to make choices.

What is Work-Life Balance?

The concept of work-life balance is admittedly vague and does not have a universally accepted definition. It generally conveys a sense of having sufficient time to meet commitments both at home and at work and a perceived balance between work and the rest of life. The concept will have different connotations to a secular audience, for whom it may mean balancing achievement and enjoyment or parceling out life into various areas of achievement, enjoyment and leisure. A Torah perspective does not view a wide range of leisure pursuits as an ideal or necessity. What can be said is that a person will not thrive on spending almost all their time involved only in activities that are merely a means to an end, such as earning money to buy products or services. A person needs to spend time regularly, if not daily, on activities that matter intrinsically, such as spiritual pursuits or relationships. A person is also likely to benefit from activities that refresh and rejuvenate the body and mind, be they exercise, sleep or any other needed relaxation.

Realistic balance does not have to mean a set schedule in which one always has a daily allotted time for all these activities.  Trying to advocate such an approach would be naïve for some professions that have especially busy seasons or periods, or for anyone who has an irregular schedule. Balance is more of an attitude, a mindset of making choices.

Where to Begin

If you (or others you care about) are beset by this sense of a life in imbalance, a life overly dominated by work, one in which there seems to be no time for the things that matter, there are a number of steps to take.

  • You need to evaluate regularly what your priorities in life are and should be.  This means your personal priorities, not those of your boss, your parents, your friends, or the magazine or flyer on your table. You need to ask yourself: How would you wish to spend your time? Granted that you may have to spend much of your time doing work or other activities that you would rather not do – but what are your priorities among the discretionary activities? 
  • Then, evaluate the time that you are allotting to activities now in relation to whether or not they are consistent with your priorities. If something is a stated priority (learning, exercise, talking to your children) and you are not finding time for it, then either it is not really a priority or there is likely a mismatch between your values and your allotment of time.
  • Acknowledge that time is precious and is finite. If you add activities and commitments to your schedule, they will come at the expense of something else. If you are fortunate, you will find that you were wasting some time and that the new priorities can be fit in by being more efficient. If you were already being efficient, then sadly, you will have to make hard choices between bigger and smaller priorities.
  • Making choices means that you will sometimes have to say no, sometimes to others and sometimes to your self (“I can’t do everything”).  Sometimes you will have to choose between very important options: the act of choosing is a way of fully honoring commitments and priorities rather than pursuing a series of halfhearted ones and sometimes misleading yourself and others. 

Specific Areas of Balance

The following section presents a brief overview of how to take a work-life balance approach to different areas of life. Each of these is worthy of an article in and of itself. Not everyone will find that they need to add elements of every category into their lives. Rather, every individual needs to think about what would be useful to incorporate into his regimen to add more balance. 


Often, your first response in an imbalanced work-life situation is that you have no choice but to work as much as you do. That may very well be true. You may already be working the minimum time required of you as an employee and it still takes too much out of you. Or, you may objectively have too much to do for the allotted hours of the work day and then must work additional hours. If these are the realities of your life, you will have to find solutions from within your discretionary hours. However, this is not always the case. Your work day may be artificially long and adding unnecessary pressure to the rest of your life. Consider these other possible reasons for your current state of overwork: 

Inefficiency. You may be spending too much time on email, surfing the internet, or allowing coworkers to waste your time (in ways that are not non-constructive for networking or team-building). You may have some control over lengthy and unproductive meetings in your workplace that you could streamline or eliminate.  Determine 

if there are ways that you could get more accomplished within the confines of the work day. 

Leadership style. You may be prone to micromanaging your subordinates and reluctant to delegate responsibility and tasks. Besides for being demoralizing to your staff, it makes your day much longer and ties you that much more tightly to your place of work.  Determine if you are willing to learn to delegate and trust your employees.

Commuting. Are there ways that you and your workplace could be in closer proximity? If not, determine if your employer (who may be you) can find ways for you to work more often from a home or local office.  

Beliefs. Some people take the patterns of hasmada they learned in yeshiva and misapply them to the workplace. Whatever they do, they must give themselves over to it completely. For others, the same competitive drive that spurred them to be masmidim drives them to keep up with their all-work, all-the-time workplace colleagues. Still others become workaholics and find that they feel most accomplished and alive in the workplace and are most at home in that milieu. If you are working all the time, really don’t want to work less, and are mainly feeling pressured by others who want you to work less, it is important to understand what is going on. It is understandable that the sense of success, of making deals, of recognition and of tangible and measurable achievement could be thrilling. You need to be alert to your potential creeping isolation from your spouse, family, Jewish friends, Jewish values, and learning, and to monitor your larger priorities.  


A Jewish man is not only required to learn, he needs to learn on a deep intellectual, spiritual, and emotional level.  Whatever learning one can fit into one’s life is certainly a priceless mitzvah. However, your learning choices can affect whether your learning will be a source of rejuvenation and an antidote to workplace stresses, or whether it will be yet another source of frustration and another competing demand at which you barely or hardly succeed. Consider these contrasting examples:

Shlomo loves his Daf Yomi shiur in the morning. He enjoys the maggid shiur’s breadth and wit, the chabura’s camaraderie, and the pace and level of discussion are attuned to his experience. He leaves the shiur feeling supercharged for the day. Because he has enough time to review on the train, he feels he is retaining information.

Chaim is frustrated by his Daf Yomi shiur. He usually attends, but is often too tired or confused to follow the shiur (especially when he has missed a few days). He has no rapport with the maggid shiur, has no time for chazzara, and doesn’t really feel he has been mesayem any one mesechta. He keeps attending instead of setting up a seder with a chavrusa because he is afraid that with his busy schedule, if he gives up this kevius, he won’t learn at all.  

Optimally, you should be periodically evaluating if the learning schedule and content that you have established for yourself is fulfilling your goals and priorities. This means asking the following questions;

  • What do I hope to accomplish in learning? 
  • What are my priorities in terms of knowing, remembering, or just enjoying immersion in learning?  
  • Does my schedule allow for structured learning in one place with others (shiurim, face-to-face chavrusos) or do I need a more flexible format? 
  • Will I find the areas and formats of learning that I wish to emphasize sufficiently  engrossing and compelling enough so that I will persevere in them despite my busy schedule, or am I engaging in wishful thinking that will result in less learning and more frustration? 

You have many sources of advice available to you on these issues but ultimately you must take the initiative to structure your learning schedule so that it will be congruent with and enhancing to your current situation and beyond. 


The importance of maintaining and cultivating relationship’s with one’s spouse and children, as well as with other family members, goes well beyond the scope of this article, and need not be reiterated here. 

One issue that affects some busy men immersed in their careers is their unintended detachment from friends. Unlike their secular counterparts, many Orthodox men do not schedule any social time with friends. With the exception of chavrusas, they usually see friends at chance meetings in the presence of others, often beginning and ending at a moment’s notice such as in shul or at a simcha.  As a busy working person in the secular world you may find yourself gradually slipping out of touch with other bnei Torah. It becomes problematic when you have no one to use as a like-minded frame of reference or when the people you most often confide in are the secular men (and sometimes women) in your workplace. If you see this happening and it concerns you, consider it a warning sign of alienation that you should make time to correct by reaching out to chaverim.

Special Events

We are a wonderfully blessed community to have so many s’machos going on throughout the year. Living in a larger community, you may be invited to multiple such events on any given night, as well the fundraising banquets, parlor meetings, and other activities associated.  You are likely affiliated with numerous worthy mosdos whose meetings, banquets, parlor meetings and other activities vie for your time.  Hopefully, you want to be m’urav im habriyos and do your part to help the community. Still, be aware: Each time you choose to go to an event, you are choosing not to do something else. 

Saying that you have to go to an event does not generally make it less of a choice. Sometimes the choice may be less dramatic: If your whole family is invited to a family simcha on a Sunday afternoon, you may have a relatively painless choice. However, if on a Tuesday night you have to choose between a wedding, a parlor meeting, a chavrusa, homework with your children, and exercising, you are being forced to set priorities. (Some mistakenly think that in this example there are only two choices, the wedding or the parlor meeting, because the others can all be made up. There is a fallacy in that logic that can repeat itself endlessly night after night). Once again, these are decisions that you make, not situations that are forced upon you.


Physical health often takes a back seat for the busy working ben-Torah. Sedentary lifestyles and rushed schedules leave little time for exercise and the outlets for male-only adult exercise are very limited in some communities.  A sedentary lifestyle exacerbated by excessive, rushed and stress-generated eating can lead to obesity and obesity-aggravated illnesses including diabetes and cardiovascular ailments.  Beyond the purely physical benefits of exercise, it is likely to provide you with positive mood benefits, relaxation of stress, or other salutary advantages that would actually provide you with more time and energy for other activities.  Seek guidance regarding the type of exercise that would fit your schedule, be best suited for you, and be sufficiently enjoyable to maintain your interest.

Life-Work Imbalance

This article has focused almost exclusively on imbalance coming from work encroaching on other areas of life. It is worth noting briefly that the reverse can also be a problem for some people. You may have taken on so many family and communal roles and responsibilities, ones that may in fact provide you with more satisfaction, that you now find yourself devoting insufficient time to your parnassa efforts or even shortchanging your responsibilities to an employer and endangering your livelihood. Or, the boundaries between your work time and family time may have slowly evaporated so that you are dealing with regular interruptions in the midst of trying to do good work. When imbalance works the other way, boundaries often need to be reestablished, both for your self and for others. Parnassa should not be taken for granted. 

Ultimate Goals 

Many working bnei Torah live noble and often courageous lives. Performing demanding jobs structured for the lifestyles of people with fewer external responsibilities, they perform admirably while also dedicating themselves to tefilla b’tzibur, regular learning, caring for large families, and the needs of many institutions. Sometimes, though, despite one’s best efforts, the demands become oppressive, and simchas hachayim or menuchas hanefesh suffers. In those times, it is important to reestablish some balance in one’s life and to reassert one’s priorities. One wants to continue to grow and thrive rather than simply persevering. One wants to continue to be a ben-aliya.


Reprinted with permission from Agudath Israel of America and Rabbi Fishel Mael, Phd

Rabbi Fishel Mael, PhD is the author of Sefer Shivtei Yisrael, a study of the characteristics of the Twelve Tribes based on Chazal and later seforim. He practices as an organizational consultant and executive/life coach.  

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