Sivan 5781

A Practical Jewish Approach to Work-life Balance

Spoiler Alert: This Article Is NOT About Shabbat

By Rabbi David Levin-Kruss


Full disclosure: I am feverishly writing these thoughts during non-work hours and at the last minute. The irony of this being an article about work-life balance is not lost on me. And I am very far personally from achieving parity that I would like between the different parts of my day.

Next: I am not going to write about Shabbat. Many have shared how stopping electronics every seven days and spending time with family or friends builds balance into one’s life. That is true but often does not influence the rest of the week and, depending on how one marks Shabbat, it can also be a super-busy day. This is especially true for Jewish professionals who sometimes “work” harder on the day of rest than any other day. So, what Jewish values can help us with work-life balance and how do we turn those values into practices that work?

The first value is the prohibition against bitul zman (wasting time). The Hebrew term literally means canceling time, rendering it non-existent by our misuse of it. Or, in Isaiah’s words, “They shall not work to no purpose…” (65:23). Do we use our time as well as we can? Are we efficient and effective when we are working? Do we make the most of our periods of relaxation? Answering yes to these questions goes a long way to us having the balance we want.

But more importantly, are we doing work we love which we feel has value? Doing something one cares about means that one resents one’s job encroaching on one’s private life less. But for many Jewish professionals, this is a trap. We believe in what we do so we justify spending extra hours by telling ourselves of the importance of our activities. When I hear myself saying something like this, I try to remind myself that, regardless of whether it is work or pleasure, I need to curb myself to have a varied and balanced life.

Next value is menucha (rest and renewal), a chance to gain perspective. Maimonides in his Hilchot Deot (Laws of Correct Ideas 3:3) writes: Even when one sleeps, if one sleeps with the intention that one’s mind and body rest, lest they take ill and be unable to serve G-d… then that sleep is service to G-d.” Echoing ideas from bitul zman, we might say that rest is not empty time. It enables us to do other important things. Absorbing this idea will encourage us to write rest periods into our diaries and not just wait for them to happen.

Last value I want to share is shmirat haguf (protecting the body). Taking care of ourselves is what allows us to do everything else. In Deuteronomy 4:9 we read, “take utmost care and watch yourselves.” The rabbis interpreted these words to refer to caring for our health. In addition to menucha we need good nutrition and regular exercise.

I am sure there is little I have written to disagree with. The hard part, of course, is putting this into practice. Recently I started a very simple program. A group of people get together and choose three Jewish values. Sometimes they are connected to each other (like the ones above). Sometimes they are three random values. (I use Attitudes, Beliefs and Values Shaping Jewish Practice by Rabbi David Teutsch as the source for the values but there are many other lists to choose from.) The group spends 45 minutes discussing these values and what place they play in their lives.

Participants have shared with me that after the meetings they are more mindful of the values they discussed and express them more in their daily lives. Rather like AA or Weight Watchers meetings help one to abstain from alcohol or lose weight, going to regular 45-minute Jewish values sessions can enable us to turn theory into reality.

And a discussion on balancing our professional and personal lives is the perfect place to start. If you are interested in advice about setting up such a group, please be in touch with me, and I will answer your email during workhours only!