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I recently went into a store and took a sweater to the counter to pay, but no one materialized. I called out and no one responded and walked around to find an employee. Maybe the sweater was free? Suddenly I saw someone in the storeroom within my line of vision and called out again. She did not turn towards me and then I realized that she was praying. I waited and she came out to apologize.
“I am so sorry. I was praying.”
“You don’t have to apologize for praying,” I said, “as long as you were praying for me and the rest of the world as well.”
As someone who prays daily, I could not fault her for the desire to seek divine intervention and take out a few moments for gratitude. But then again, I am not her boss. Praying during work time presents an interesting spiritual and ethical dilemma, and I turned to the Talmud to see how Jewish law would respond.
The mishna, short passages of Jewish law that constitute part of the Talmud, discusses the legal issues surrounding prayer breaks at work. The mishna above specially refers to the saying of Shema, our central prayer, and within that, its first line. In this case, the job you are in takes you high in the air. You can say that prayer even when you’re up a tree or on a wall. It doesn’t take much time and everyone knows it. But, of course, it’s much harder to say our longest prayer, the Amidah or Eighteen Benedictions. And, if you take three steps back on the top of a tree, you’ll probably find yourself on the ground in no time.
The gemara, the commentary on the mishna, discusses two relevant issues in this case. If you pray with any degree of intensity or thoughtfulness, you risk danger in a tree or on a wall; consequently, you are only permitted to say something brief and familiar that will allow the necessary intention but take into consideration your surroundings.
But there is another issue. Your boss. The gemara and rabbinic commentaries even up to the very last century, observe that you cannot take a leadership role in a prayer service during work because it would exact too much time from your work schedule and, as an employee, you have ethical responsibilities to your employer. Jewish law also makes a distinction between project-based work and hourly work when it comes to prayer. If you get paid by the hour, you cannot take a quarter of an hour of borrowed time.
While I appreciated the fact that a person took time from her day to pray, I wondered to myself if any shoplifting might have got done on her watch. Could someone who works with children have made an easy exit for five or ten minutes? As the mishna communicates, discretion is critical. Responsibility to be mindful must be directed both to God and to the human begins we answer to in our lives.
And maybe there is another dimension to this issue. An ancient midrash, a commentary on the Bible, mentions a person who was a very holy shoemaker because with each stitch he said, “Blessed be His holy name. May his kingdom reign forever.” Ordinary work can be imbued with extraordinary intention. Maybe when we take pride in our work and exhibit kindness towards those we work with and for, our work itself becomes a form of prayer.
Dr. Erica Brown (pictured, click to download) is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places(OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.
Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list at http://leadingwithmeaning.com.