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Rabbi Berel Wein

Not having a job is not only a financial difficulty. Perhaps just as importantly, it is a major emotional and psychological challenge as well. The unemployed feel rejected and of little use to themselves, their families and society generally. Most of the time this is not of their making but they are buffeted by a suddenly unfriendly economic downturn that forces employers to cut back on the number of employees that their businesses can support. Nonetheless the effects of losing a job and being unable to find another one quickly are devastating.

There are many who have highly developed professional skills or years of experience and they are simply unwilling or unable to accept what they consider to be work beneath their social or educational stature. All human egos are fragile and it is psychologically and emotionally difficult for former middle level managers for instance to become janitors or sanitation people if those jobs are in fact available to them.

Perhaps it is the emphasis on higher education and training which is so much a part of the ethos of our current society that prevents people from descending gracefully in rank and importance in order to be employed. In any event it is a difficult situation for those who find themselves to be talented, industrious and efficient in their chosen field of endeavor and yet without work or employment. Unemployment insurance may help to lessen the financial pain but I believe that many people resent having to be on the dole and the charity of others. Life is oftentimes tough, hard and unfair.

Unemployment was the major problem of Eastern European Jewry in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In many provinces of the Jewish Pale of Settlement, the Jewish unemployment rate approached an outstandingly vicious forty percent. In order to ease the pain of the unemployed, the Jewish society created different types of communal work.

There was a “veker” – someone whose task was to wake people for synagogue services in the early morning. There were many gabbaim in the synagogue with the work of one gabbai distributed between three or four men. The badchan – jokester and comedian who performed at weddings – was deemed to be a profession though certainly not a lucrative one. The shadchan – the matchmaker – was also considered to be a profession though most parents could hardly afford to pay any substantial fee to him or her

Because of this terrible unemployment situation, Jews were considered to be luftmentschen – people who lived from the air and never really engaged in any truly productive work. This was one of the criticisms of traditional Eastern European Jewish society mounted by the non-Jewish society against the Jews and echoed by the Bund, the Labor Zionists and other Jewish groups as well.

Because of the dire poverty of the Jewish society, many Jews resorted to types of activities which were technically illegal under Czarist laws, which officially discriminated against Jews. The statement of the rabbis that “a poor person is considered to be a dead person” certainly was a reality in Eastern European Jewish society of the time.

It is ironic that much of current unemployment is concentrated in the educated ranks of the upper middle class. Jews pushed their children into higher education at almost all cost because they saw it as a buffer and safeguard against unemployment in later life. Jewish parents and their offspring desired to enter the professions that seemingly would guarantee them financial stability for a lifetime – medicine, law, civil government service and professorships.

But the current severe economic downturn has affected even those areas of endeavor previously thought of as being immune. The Talmud in discussing the issue of employment and work advances a number of different ideas regarding the matter. Rabi Meir stated that the study of Torah is paramount even over work preparation. Other rabbis had differing opinions. All agreed that enforced unemployment was a negative factor in personal lives of Jews and in the general Jewish society as a whole.

I had a member in my congregation in Monsey who every Friday night would tell me how happy he was that he met that week’s payroll and families would be able to survive because of their work. Employment and unemployment are not only economic factors, like dots on a graph. There is a tremendous human profit and loss involved as well. That is what makes the current dire economic and job scene so depressing. There is more than the pure bottom line involved in these matters. Human lives and families should also be considered.



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