The world of work is one of the primary arenas of our life as Jews. This may sound like a bland, too-obvious-to-be-stated idea. Albanians and Zimbabweans also work. Yet nothing in Judaism comes without some novel insight. Because of the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people, it might be thought that our service lies only in the sublime areas of Torah and mitzvot and not in the mundane pursuits that occupy the nations of the world.
But work isn’t a mundane pursuit. And as long as we are not living miraculously off the manna from Heaven as our forebears did in the Wilderness, work, and the income it produces, remains the determining factor of the household balance sheet.
The necessity of work is a Divine decree imposed on Adam and all of his descendants: “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread.” For all of humanity, work is the effort we must make for our sustenance as well as the creative expression of our unique talents. But for Jews specifically, work is a form of Divine service. In other words, it does not contradict our unique role as bearers of Torah, but enables it. We can perhaps grasp this point most immediately by looking at the culmination of our life in this world: yom hadin, the day of judgment. The Talmud teaches that we are asked six questions on this awesome occasion:
Did you conduct your business dealings honestly?
Did you set times for Torah study?
Did you engage in procreation?
Did you anticipate salvation?
Did you sharpen your mind with wisdom?
Did you understand one matter from another?Shabbat 31a
Half of these questions involve Torah learning, while only one – the very first – involves our business conduct. The choice of questions is not random. Work heads the list of demands predominated by Torah precisely because work is a form of Torah – it is Torah in practice. To paraphrase the Ba’al Shem Tov, we must not only learn Bava Metzia (a Talmudic tractate focusing on business law) – we must do Bava Metzia.
The reason for the supreme importance of work is that few things test us so thoroughly. About 100 of the 613 mitzvot relate to financial issues. These commandments refine us as Jews, and our dealings in the world of business apparently require a greater degree of such refinement (and hence, more mitzvot).
It is in this arena that our actions reveal how honest we really are; how we respond to the demands of an exacting boss; how much effort we make to achieve excellence in our trade or profession; how well we serve customers, even difficult ones; how responsibly we pay our vendors; how careful we are not to trample over merchants when we are the customers. In short, our record in the business world clearly attests to our level of integrity, our reliability and our treatment of others. The Talmud sees in the Psalmist’s phrase “lands of the living” a metaphor for the marketplace.
 Bereishit 3:19.
 Cited in Ba’al Shem Tov, Behar 5.
 77 of the Rambam’s count of commandments are sorted into the books dealing with torts, acquisition and business. When added to the commandments relative to charity, priestly and levitical gifts, the number passes 100.
 Tehillim 116:9.
 Yoma 71a.