02.40 Work



Our ability to define work is important because if we don’t know what work is, it will probably take up more time than we expect it to. This is Parkinson’s Law, which we read about every last week of the month in this newsletter: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” 


For example, I tend to keep puttering with finishing touches on a meal until it’s time to serve it. The more time I have, the more time it takes. I do the same thing with my lesson and seminars. Even if I am ‘done’ two weeks early, I keep doing (minor) revisions until it is “go time.” 


Before we look at how you or I ought to define work, let me start with a little teaching about how Judaism classically has defined the term. In the Hebrew Bible, the definition of work is based on what was done during the construction of the Tabernacle. If you look at the Talmud, in Mishnah Shabbat 7.2, it explains the 39 activities that were completed during building of the tabernacle. These activities are classically defined “work”: 

  • Applying a finishing touch 
  • Beating 
  • Building
  • Cooking
  • Curing
  • Cutting
  • Demolishing
  • Dying
  • Erasing
  • Extinguishing a fire
  • Flaying
  • Gathering
  • Grinding
  • Igniting a fire
  • Kneading
  • Making two loops
  • Planting
  • Plowing
  • Reaping
  • Scoring
  • Scouring
  • Separating two threads
  • Sewing
  • Shearing 
  • Sifting
  • Slaughtering
  • Smoothing 
  • Sorting 
  • Spinning
  • Tearing
  • Threshing
  • Tying
  • Transferring between two domains 
  • Trapping 
  • Uniting 
  • Warping 
  • Weaving 
  • Winnowing (separating) 
  • Writing 

The Talmud explains that as these tasks are considered to be work, on the Sabbath – a day to refrain from work – we oughtn’t do them. 


I want us to use this principle in our own lives. Let’s first define “work,” then use that as a jumping-off point to figure out how we should define “rest.”  


  • So for you, what does “work” mean? How do you define work? 

Let me start you out with some thoughts:  

Does work involve using the internet? Answering your cell phone? Checking email? Driving? Paper-pushing?


Whatever you define work as, I want you to seriously consider when it is that you don’t work. 


We live in a world in which we can be working constantly – with fancy phones, messaging, 24/7 connectivity. (I can even check e-mail while using the toilet.) 


Don’t do it! We need time to not work, or our lives will be out of balance. 


In the words of Thomas Merton


To allow oneself to be carried away  

by a multitude of conflicting concerns,  

to surrender to too many demands,  

to commit oneself to too many projects,  

to want to help everyone in everything,  

is to succumb to the violence of our times.


Spiritual-religious advice:

Figure out what work means.

Figure out what not-work means.

Schedule some not-work time.


With love,

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