The challenges of parnassah among Jewish communities have evolved over time, but the injunction of “B’ze’as apecha tochal lechem” has remained unchanged since Adam HaRishon. What remains a constant, even in the 21st century, is the struggle which defines man’s labor for his sustenance and which eternally substantiates the Talmudic dictum of “Kashin mezonosav shel adam k’Krias Yam Suf” (Pesachim 118a). The variable is how that is interpreted.
Parnassah is the eternal paradox: It can be both a source of blessing and a source of curse. And while working for a livelihood is an essential component of life and not limited to the Jewish people, it is the goal of every Jew to elevate human toil and sanctify it to the level of avodas Hashem. How we work, the form of our work, and what we do with our earnings reflect our ability to transform the mundane into the spiritual.
There are many references throughout the written and oral Torah regarding the centrality of parnassah and the laws that govern this fundamental aspect of Jewish life. Depending on differing historical Jewish backgrounds, the types of trade Jews occupied differed as well. In the times of the Talmud, Hillel worked as a woodcutter, Rabbi Meir a scribe, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah a blacksmith, etc.
During the Middle Ages, legal restrictions kept many Jews from occupations that they thrive at today. Jews now excel in all areas of business and all areas of profession — law, medicine, accounting, computers, etc. The debate no longer centers on limited ability to pursue a career, but rather on how fulfilling that career will be. And the expanded role of women in the workforce has extended the question to Jewish women too, changing the landscape of family economics and family dynamics.
All these factors shape varying attitudes of frum communities towards parnassah and prompt the realization that with greater opportunities come greater challenges. Conversely, more leeway in methods of earning a living, within the parameters of halachah, can offer more prospects for other pursuits, chiefly the study of Torah.
The nuances of current opportunities and challenges warrant a fresh look from contemporaries against the backdrop of our varied history. Here, then, is a compendium of interviews with several authorities who speak to the specific struggles and demands our generation faces both inside and outside of the workplace. And while some may differ from each other, they are all uniform in their devotion l’shem Shamayim.
Rabbi Moshe scheinerman
Rav of Khal Bnei Hayeshivos in Flatbush for the past 32 years
As the Rav of a shul with many baalei batim, how would you describe the current parnassah challenges they face?
For those who are making a lot of money, their challenge is how to spend their money in accordance with the Torah. If they were given this matanah from Hakadosh Baruch Hu, they have a responsibility to spend it properly.
For those who are struggling financially, we must realize that what a few short years ago was considered a lot of money, $150,000–$250,000, is no longer considered such. People are finding it hard to cope with the default expenses they’re faced with on a daily basis — taxes, tuition, seminaries in Israel and the requisite visit there, chasunos, summer camps, summer houses, etc. I wonder if there’s a middle class anymore. If it does indeed exist, then those people are definitely struggling nowadays.
Flatbush may conjure up images of excess materialism. Has the problem of conspicuous consumption within the community improved or deteriorated over the years?
Now it has spread. Take a look at Lakewood and Monsey — at the shopping centers and malls. With opportunities arising that allow the purchase of “bigger and better,” many of our children are going to outlying communities. There’s a tremendous downside to all of this — they are moving out of a makom Torah and giving up access to well-established and successful yeshivos, Bais Yaakovs, batei medrash and Rabbanim. So if anything, I think Flatbush is not “the” in the definitive.
What would you advise to stem this tide?
I would advise them to live their lives in accordance with the dictates of the Torah. People who are building houses outside of mekomos haTorah, many without Rabbanim, have lost that part of the equation. I’m not here to be judgmental. I’m here to say that our children need a Rav who will afford them constant chizuk, advice and guidance.
People should make decisions in accordance with a Rebbe, Rosh Yeshivah or Rav. I have many successful baalei battim in my shul, and I can draw a graph tracking those who were sho’el eitzah and accepted advice with a proportionate rise in their own success and the success of their children and personal relationships. Their children are bnei Torah, and that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re sitting and learning. They can be working in computers or real estate, but they’re living their lives with spiritual meaning. Unfortunately, for those lacking a similar connection with a Rav, they usually have very little to show for themselves, their children and their personal relationships.
Nowadays, the extended buying power of those making a lot of money can distract from what the Torah really asks of them. If one changes even an iota of the mesorah or Yiddishkeit of his father and grandparents, he might not initially notice the difference in his life. But 10, 20 or 30 years down the road, he will definitely see a gradual or even drastic decline in his avodas Hashem. Money is only a brachah if we know what to do with it.
With many young men sitting and learning, at least initially, what effect does this have on shidduchim or the financial burden on parents?
Regarding parents supporting their children, I believe it’s about the appreciation. If parents appreciate what their children are doing, then it’s considered a zechus, a badge of honor. A child doesn’t want to feel like he’s getting a handout from a parent. He wants to feel that his parent is a shutaf with him in his learning. For parents who find it difficult, any small form of assistance shows the children that they are with them. It’s a vote of confidence that goes a long way.
What are your thoughts regarding boys attending college in pursuit of parnassah?
When I grew up, college was the be-all and end-all of a person as far as parnassah was concerned. If you went to college, you were successful and had parnassah. If not, you were predestined to belong in the lower class. Today it’s different. Professionals oftentimes earn less, sometimes much less, than some who didn’t attend college. Many of these didn’t even graduate high school.
There are many more job opportunities today that don’t require a college education. If one does pursue the business option, then we must recognize the downside of spending years in a university that could have been spent in a beis medrash before entering into business. Of course, all this does not apply to universities that are co-ed and have professors who teach kefirah.
Can you comment on the use of government assistance among learning couples?
If they do everything in accordance with the laws and qualifications, then they’re entitled to receive this aid because they’re eligible students. What they’re doing is no different, l’havdil, than any college student making use of government programs. However, if it prevents forward movement for fear they’ll lose these programs, then that’s a problem. But that is an anomaly.
While many women work because of financial necessity, what pressure does the learning lifestyle put on wives, and what are the effects of working mothers on today’s generation of children?
If a mother becomes a careerist, then that certainly presents a tremendous challenge regarding the mother’s ability to spend the necessary amount of time to be mechanech her children. Those challenges exist in law, medicine, running a firm, even nursing. A mother should be able to work and then leave it all behind to come home and nurture her children.
In cases where the husband is learning and little children are left with a non-Jewish babysitter, they should consult with a Rosh Yeshivah or Rav. Usually, the more Torah and Yiddishkeit a fellow has, the more it will positively affect his household. However, decisions should be decided on a case-by-case basis. The Alter of Slabodka would tell each and every student, based on his acumen and spiritual strengths, what he should be — Rav, Dayan, Rebbi or businessman.
Once men go out into the workforce, what are the biggest challenges they confront?
The biggest challenges are the internet, with social media and tznius issues, especially in the office. These are nisyonos that have brought down many, many people. I have had to deal with many terrible situations. However, those who learned in yeshivah before going out to work are more prepared than those who go to work right after marriage. Being steeped in kedushah and mussar for all those years sustains them spiritually.
What advice would you give these working people?
To do what our zeides and bubbes did. Their nisayon was not to work on Shabbos. They would be fired on Friday and have to look for a new job on Monday. Nowadays, even with all our Torah learning, if we allow ourselves access to social devices or any compromise on tzinus, then we are doing less than our zeides and bubbes did years ago. They were moser nefesh for Shabbos and kashrus, which is why we’re here today. We have to be moser nefesh for kedushas Yisrael. This applies to everyone — men and women, wealthy and poor, baalei battim and bnei Torah.
We all have to view parnassah as a nisayon from Hashem. Everything is divinely orchestrated, whether you are at the poorer end of the spectrum or the richer end. Each grouping in Klal Yisrael is faced with its particular nisayon. In accordance with that, we have to work on ourselves not only to cope, but to thrive and grow from the nisayon.
Rabbi Yehuda Jacobson
Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshiva Tiferes Yisroel in Flatbush a branch of Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva
As the head of a thriving Brooklyn yeshivah, what parnassah challenges do you see confronting the talmidim and their families?
Parnassah is a challenge today in the sense that it definitely costs a lot more to live than years ago. Even a good parnassah often doesn’t fill the needs of a person. A lot depends on someone’s lifestyle. We try to educate the boys not to aim for a high lifestyle and to try to be satisfied with less. Yet even being satisfied with less, it still costs quite a bit of money today. Unless someone is doing very, very well, you often need two incomes to really make it.
What effect does this trend of two incomes, either by necessity or choice, have on talmidim?
I would say it depends on the mother. There are stay-at-home mothers who don’t do a good job of being mechanech their children and there are working mothers who do. But if a mother works full time and is out from 8:00-6:00, then it’s a problem. Unless you have no choice, I don’t recommend that. I would recommend part-time so that a mother is home when her children come home. Of course, there’s no question that l’chat’chilah it’s best for a mother to stay home.
What problems do you see with excess materialism today, and how does the yeshivah try to guide its talmidim?
It’s a problem. People might foolishly think materialism will bring them satisfaction. It doesn’t. The chinuch we try to instill is a slow process that takes years. We teach them mussar and hashkafah and focus on what life is, what we’re here for, and how materialism will not give us real pleasure and satisfaction. Rather, it will cause us to always want more and more.
I tell the boys that real satisfaction comes from doing something with one’s life and making something of oneself. The goal should be to need less and less. Many people go from one vacation to planning the next, from one upgrade to the next. As we grow in Torah and Torah values, the things that were important to us in the past should become less important.
How does the yeshivah deal with the financial burden of high tuition?
We try to be fair about it. We don’t look at someone and say, “You’re earning a certain amount, so you have to pay full tuition.” We look individually at what they earn, the size of the family, their realistic needs, how much outside help there is, etc.
The reality today is that a person could be making a nice salary, $175,000, and still struggle. There are taxes, housing, camps, seminaries, weddings, bar mitzvahs. And those are basic bills, without vacations, summer homes, extravagant clothing. We understand that and we give breaks accordingly. Many people get parental help, but it’s not always the case. And fewer people will get help as the older generation recedes and the younger generation has more children.
How does the yeshivah view the pursuit of chinuch?
In general, we do promote chinuch as an ideal, but it all depends on the individual bachur and whether he’s oriented in that direction and whether it’s a lifestyle that can fit him. He also has to be realistic about his capabilities and flexible about how it could supply a reasonable parnassah. We’re sensitive and understand that it’s not for everyone and has to be determined by a case-by-case basis.
If a boy is interested in going into some sort of chinuch position and is cut out for it, then he has to be flexible about how it could supply a reasonable parnassah.
What happens once bachurim go through the rigorous process to obtain semichah only to find that there are no positions open to them?
That’s a big problem today. In our system, we find that boys are flexible and open to going to school for a degree when they see that chinuch does not work for them. They have a solid education behind them and are easily adaptable to that option.
Many go into different professions, such as law, accounting and medicine. We try not to create an atmosphere where that’s looked down upon, and when a boy does pursue a profession he therefore feels comfortable and is prepared for it.
Does the Chofetz Chaim system view this as a another expression of avodas Hashem?
Absolutely. The Rosh Yeshivah always used to tell the boys that just because they’re not in a conventional chinuch setting doesn’t mean that they can’t do chinuch. You can make a kiddush Hashem in the place where you work. You can give classes without remuneration at night. You can be involved in kiruv.
Some boys enter certain professions, like medicine or social work, that are not regular chinuch but help others. We don’t look at it as giving up an ideal. Each person can do it in his own way.
As in other institutions, mechanchim seem to be overwhelmingly represented through close family connections which might lead some to point to nepotism. How would you respond to this?
It definitely exists out there, no question about it. For someone who doesn’t have those connections, certain jobs are harder to get. If you want to get a job as a beis medrash Rebbi and you’re not related, it might be harder unless you’re the star of the stars. Therefore, your options are to seek other jobs, like a principal-type job or lower shiur.
There’s also more opportunity for those willing to travel, and some might start things on their own.
How does the yeshivah incorporate their strong emphasis on scrupulousness into the realm of parnassah?
The yeshivah emphasizes doing what’s right and trusting that Hashem will take care of us. Honesty is hammered into us early on. If by going into chinuch you’re going to have to do things that compromise your ideals, like taking government programs that you don’t qualify for, then don’t do it. Go get a job.
What advice would you give people trying to balance frumkeit and work?
You have to be very careful about the atmosphere you work in. Some places are very challenging to your frumkeit, and you should stay away from them. You have to be in a place where people act morally and don’t try to sway you.
In addition to being careful about not getting swept up in the culture of a place, you must not allow work to become all-encompassing. You have to understand that your life is different. Set aside time to learn and time for your family. If you focus on needing less, then you will better be able to understand what life is all about. Parnassah, “B’ze’as apecha tochal lechem,” is something that we have to do, but it isn’t our life.
Rabbi Moshe Schwab
Musmach of ner israel son of Harav Shimon Schwab, zt”l, Rav, Khal Adath Jeshurun
As a follower of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, can you describe what Torah im Derech Eretz means to you?
First of all, Torah im Derech Eretz has been misunderstood. It’s been taken by some as an excuse for modernizing Judaism, but it’s not that at all. Torah im Derech Eretz, as envisioned by Rav Hirsch, is a worldview of the Torah being the ultimate truth and knowledge in the world, and all other knowledges and sciences are seen through the prism of Torah.
Rav Hirsch’s teachings taught the world that there’s no contradiction between science and Torah. In former times, people were afraid to study the sciences for fear it would contradict Torah or cause one to veer off its path. Rav Hirsch taught that you can be a strictly frum Jew in every sense of the word, theoretically, ideally, practically, and still be able to study the chochmos of the world as a manifestation of the chochmos haBorei and understand that all this comes from the Ribbono shel Olam.
Did your father subscribe to the same interpretation as did Rav Hirsch?
My father was a purist as far as Torah im Derech Eretz was concerned. He was a follower of Rav Hirsch, as were his father and grandfather before him. His grandfather was a close talmid of Rav Hirsch and took the original notes of Rav Hirsch’s lectures on Chumash, which eventually became his peirush on Chumash. The Schwab family was very close to the Hirschean “Weltanschauung.”
The only difference was that as a young man, my father thought — erroneously, as he said later — that this concept was only a temporary solution to stem the tide of Reform in Germany. Later on, after studying Rav Hirsch’s writings and teachings in depth, he concluded that this was not a temporary solution. His final word was that Rav Hirsch never intended Torah im Derech Eretz to be a hora’as sha’ah, but rather a Torah worldview for all times.
How does this worldview extend to the sphere of parnassah?
Torah im Derech Eretz and parnassah are only tangentially related. It was not espoused by Rav Hirsch as a way for people to earn a living. Rather, Torah im Derech Eretz is a much broader concept. It is a Torah worldview. As a side benefit it gives one the ability to study the sciences, provided that they are studied within the parameters of Torah. Consequently, Rav Hirsch’s followers were able to become professionals — doctors, lawyers, professors, mathematicians and businesspeople — yet remain strictly loyal to all Torah values in sincere belief and practice.
The Torah im Derech Eretz ideal of parnassah is to earn an honest and adequate living while not violating any Torah or secular law. Any violation of secular law is viewed as a chillul Hashem. Parnassah is pursued to give one an opportunity to earn an independent livelihood to adequately support his family so that he is able to live an independent, thoroughly Jewish life. There is absolutely an emphasis on a strong work ethic. Also, the concept of working hard just to become rich is completely discouraged in the Torah im Derech Eretz ideal.
The German Jewish community was once a thriving one, but it’s largely dispersed. What would you attribute this to?
It’s hard to say. Apparently the popular yeshivish way of life seems more attractive for reasons I can’t explain. The kehillah and the Torah im Derech Eretz way of life is so beautiful, structured and fulfilling, and yet, unfortunately, it is not attracting many new followers.
When I was a young man, there were very few people learning in kollel, but this lifestyle has spread rapidly. The premise of my father’s writing, Elu V’elu, focused on the merit he saw in this lifestyle, as well as the merit of those who choose to go to work, so long as both choices are pursued with a sincerely Torah-based outlook l’shem Shamayim.
My father’s kehillah chose the derech in which a select few outstanding scholars were to be the learners, teachers and Rabbanim — the “Kohanim and Leviim,” as my father termed them. But the majority of the people were to be good, observant Jews in belief and practice, who earned an honest living. Nevertheless, my father placed a great emphasis on everyone pursuing Torah learning as much as possible in each individual’s circumstances.
As a young man in the 1920s, my father’s goal was to be a Rav. Although he was urged to attend university and earn a doctorate, as most German Rabbanim did in those days, he opted instead to be a full-time Torah student. His famed secular knowledge was all self-taught in his spare time.
While in the Frankfurt Yeshivah, he became attracted to the Lithuanian style of learning and left Frankfurt to join the Telshe and Mir yeshivos. However, he was more attracted to the learning than to the lifestyle. He never forgot his German upbringing and his heritage of Torah im Derech Eretz. He amalgamated that with intense litvishe learning and blended the best of both worlds. That worldview formed my upbringing, and every day I think of my father and thank him for the chinuch he gave us.
Rabbi Moshe Bamberger
Mashgiach Ruchani of Beis Medrash L’Talmud Lander College for Men in New York City
Can you talk about your yekkishe background and how it influenced your hashkafos, especially regarding parnassah?
I am definitely Yekkish — both my father and mother were born in Germany, of renowned Ashkenazic lineage. However, I would define my hashkafos as part Yekke, part Litvak. While I was raised with yekkishe ideals, I did not attend yekkishe yeshivos; I attended litvishe ones. This profoundly shaped my worldview.
As the Mashgiach Ruchani of Lander College, what type of philosophy regarding parnassah do you promote?
We espouse a very strong emphasis on limud haTorah and mussar. In addition, we integrate a top-level college on our campus. The curriculum of the secular studies is under the supervision of the Rosh Hayeshivah, who ensures that what is taught in the college is not contrary to Torah principles and halachah.
We offer many different majors in varied fields, and we encourage our talmidim to find the path of life best suited for their personal aspirations as striving bnei Torah — to earn a respectable parnassah while maintaining their deep devotion to Torah study and values.
Many of them go on to study for semichah, from which they enter the fields of rabbanus and chinuch. Many talmidim also remain in kollel after marriage, either in our beis medrash or anywhere in the world.
Do you view parnassah as a b’di’eved or, in order to provide financial support for their families, as a l’chat’chilah?
That is a great question and it’s a very delicate subject. The answer, I feel, is that it depends on the specific talmid. If a young man decides to dedicate his life to learning Torah and be a part of Shevet Levi, then that is unquestionably a l’chat’chilah. And if a person feels that practically he wants or needs to earn a parnassah and that leads him to Lander College, then that’s a l’chat’chilah. No one should feel that what he is doing is b’di’eved. This is his l’chat’chilah — he is learning and pursuing a degree in order to provide for himself and his family.
If someone decides that he can be mekadesh Shem Shamayim by becoming a professional, then he should strongly consider that option after consulting with daas Torah. I often tell my talmidim of a famous letter written by Harav Yitzchak Hutner, zt”l, addressed to a talmid of his attending medical school. The talmid confided in the Rosh Yeshivah that he felt he was living a double life. Rav Hutner responded, “You’re not living a double life, you’re living a broad life.” This is what we try to impress upon the hearts and minds of our talmidim.
As a Mashgiach of many marriageable-age young men, how do these choices affect shidduchim, especially in terms of the financial burden put on the wives?
Our talmidim marry girls with hashkafos in line with their individual choices. I try arranging shidduchim and work to match them up accordingly. The talmidim who are pursuing a career will marry someone seeking a learner/earner — someone who is kovei’a itim while at the same time providing a livelihood for his family.
If a young woman aspires to marry someone who will devote his life to Torah study alone, she will marry a talmid who wants to learn exclusively. Often these girls come from more well-to-do homes or went to school to get a parnassah specifically to support a husband and family.
What are the biggest challenges facing men going into the secular workplace and how well do you prepare them for it?
The transition from the wholesome world of the yeshivah to the foreign world outside comes with a plethora of challenges. We try our best to prepare the talmidim, but it’s still a great test. It’s a very different world once you’re out of the yeshivah. We try to fill up their “gas tanks” with enough kedushah, mussar and hashkafah to get them very far, but that’s not to say that the road will always be a smooth one.
I would also like to mention that we have a unique requirement. In order to graduate, one needs to take courses that provide relevant halachos of the particular field he will be entering. This further equips our students to enter the workforce well prepared to remain bnei Torah.
What role do you see materialism playing both during and after yeshivah/college?
Materialism has always been a major challenge, which has become exacerbated by the dangerous world of social media. People who compare their own lifestyles with those of others create a lot of frustration and discontent in terms of what they are able to afford and not afford. Social media inundates people with airbrushed images of other people’s lives, and the comparison to one’s own circumstances is inevitable. Not living up to standard is something very difficult for individuals at every stage in life. It tears at the very fabric of relationships and of personal self-worth. These are themes that are addressed very often in our beis medrash.
What advice would you offer to combat this?
The Mishnah Berurah speaks about the importance of living within one’s means and the danger of spending more than you have (see Biur Halachah, 529). That includes credit cards and living beyond your means. Once you get accustomed to a lavish lifestyle, it is very hard to moderate, so the more hadrachah you have in your youth about these matters the better. When I talk to people when they’re still young — single, engaged or newly married — it’s potentially possible to change the course of who they marry and/or the priorities they set. Once they’ve been married for a long time it’s that much harder to change.