Question. Is it a sin to give up work since the Torah says, “Six days shall you work”?
Answer. What is the status of the words, “Six days shall you work”? Is this a positive mitzvah in the sense that if you don’t work you deserve to be punished? If this were the case, then not only would a retiree have a problem, but so would anyone who is out of work. How just would it be for the Torah to penalise a person who is looking for a job but can’t find one?
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler says in his “Michtav Me’Eliyahu” (using the approach of Moshe Chayyim Luzzatto’s “M’sillat Yesharim”),
“Look at the lists of the commandments. Nowhere will you find an actual mitzvah of ‘Six days shall you work'”.
It is not that the Torah has no appreciation of the value of work. But work is not one of the 248 positive mitzvot. The Torah authorises work but with a limitation, as if it said,
“When you work, limit it to six days and leave room for Shabbat”.
One might add that whilst work is important, it is not an end in itself. Work is a means – not an end. It enables people to support themselves and their family and to enhance the quality of civilisation and society… and is the way of enabling yourself to learn Torah.
Question. You recently said that phrases such as “Well over the fast” are somewhat strange. Do they really have no historical origins?
Answer. Though I attributed these and other phrases, including “Please God by you”, to Anglo-Jewry, they seem to derive from the Yiddish-speaking environment in old Eastern Europe.
On the eve of the Yom Kippur fast, for example, there was a common phrase, “Ihr zolt hob’n a gring’n tonis” – “You should have an easy fast”. I still argue, however, that this ignores the real purpose of the day, which is not to think so much of the stomach but of the soul.
The “Please God by you” greeting, which is the despair of unmarried people at a wedding, is also from eastern European origins and is part Hebrew, part Yiddish – “Im yir’tzeh HaShem bei dir” – “If God wills it, (there should be joy) by you”. (Those who don’t know what “Im yir’tzeh HaShem” means have been known to abbreviate the phrase to “Mitcham bei dir”).
“By” has come into English as the result of Yiddish influence, producing phrases like “It’s all right by me” and “By Judaism that’s acceptable”. In what some people call “Yeshivish” the word is now very common, e.g. “You’ll eat by me this week!”
ADAM & EVE, CAIN & ABEL.
Question. I have two questions about the beginning of history. What did Adam and Eve really do wrong when they ate the fruit of the tree? What was the cause of the quarrel between Cain and Abel?
Answer. According to Nachmanides (Ramban), before eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve lacked the power to make decisions. Like the heavenly bodies, they were like mere machines, programmed to function in a set way. By partaking of the fruit of the tree, their destiny changed for ever. They gained the power of decision-making and were now able to choose their path, whether moral or immoral. This therefore provides an origin for human free will.
The root of the quarrel between Cain and Abel in Genesis chapter 4:9 is not completely spelt out in the text. The Italian commentator Umberto Cassuto suggested that it harks back to verse 2, which says, “Abel was a feeder of flocks: Cain was a tiller of the ground”, and that the quarrel indicates that there was always rivalry between the tiller of the soil and the shepherd which in subsequent generations became a well-known feature of folklore. Though Cassuto could find no specific literary evidence for this suggestion, later discoveries of Ugaritic texts lend support to his explanation.
Rashi says there are many Midrashim on the subject but does not elaborate in much detail. Seeking midrashic material, we find reports that the brothers were always at odds and their father thought it would separate them and quieten things down if each one followed a different occupation, but in the end the hostility could not be prevented. Another Midrash suggests that they argued over a girl; each son had a twin sister, and Cain desired the sister of Abel and sought any pretext to remove Abel from the scene.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.