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The Tyranny of the Timeclock

The Tyranny of the Timeclock

In October, the Jewish Journal ran an article called “The Cult of Overwork and the Sabbath.” The gist of the piece, written by a rabbi from New York, is hinted at in the title itself: However easy it is to work with the fervor of a religious faith, overwork is detrimental to our physical and mental health—and the best antidote is, yes, the Sabbath. 


Big Bucks

The piece began by linking to a 2014 article in The New Yorker,The Cult of Overwork,” by James Surowiecki, about how many hours white collar professionals in the United States worked in order to make big bucks.

“For decades, junior bankers and Wall Street firms had an unspoken pact: in exchange for reasonably high-paying jobs and a shot at obscene wealth, young analysts agreed to work fifteen hours a day, and forgo anything resembling a normal life,” it read. “But things may be changing. Last October, Goldman Sachs told its junior investment-banking analysts not to work on Saturdays, and it has said that all analysts, on average, should be working no more than seventy to seventy-five hours a week. A couple of weeks ago, Bank of America Merrill Lynch said that analysts are expected to have four weekend days off a month. And, last week, Credit Suisse told its analysts that they should not be in the office on Saturdays.” 

These aforementioned financial behemoths, among others, have put rules in place for their employees, and especially their junior workers, to take off one day a week in order to “recharge for more work.” This blog, in fact, recently covered a tragic situation that actually spurred the implementation of Goldman Sachs’ day of rest.

The bottom line isn’t so much concern for the workers themselves, though that might be a partial reason, but concern for the workers’ productivity. It’s a classic case of diminishing returns: A worker works and works and works until, sooner or later, the body and mind give out, and the worker produces less and less and less. Human beings, in short, need a rest. “It should be noted,” said the Journal, “that overwork is ultimately impractical. After a certain point, productivity suffers and burnout is common.”

The article also mentioned a traditional Jewish teaching, which posits that a young Moses, growing up as a prince of Egypt, “convinced Pharaoh to allow the Jewish slaves to rest on Shabbat,” the Hebrew word for “Sabbath.” Supposedly, Moses used the same reasoning as Wall Street is now.

The New Yorker presented the same idea: “The perplexing thing about the cult of overwork is that, as we’ve known for a while, long hours diminish both productivity and quality. … And the effects are cumulative. The bankers … started to break down in their fourth year on the job. They suffered from depression, anxiety, and immune-system problems, and performance reviews showed that their creativity and judgment declined.”

That’s quite telling. Did God perhaps create us to actually need the Sabbath? Are we wired to rest on the seventh day, to “labor and do all [our] work” (Exodus 20:9) the first six days but to remember that “the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD [our] God” (v. 10)? As the fourth commandment states, “In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates.”


The Proper Value of Work

The problem isn’t with work itself. One can go back to the biblical account of Adam and Eve in Eden, even a pre-fall Eden, and find humanity tasked with work: “Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Do we not read in the fourth commandment that we are to work six days a week before resting on the seventh? We are to work. The Bible praises the diligent and industrious (Proverbs 6:6; 13:4) as a blessing to others (Ephesians 4:28).

However, the problem arises from making work an end in itself. Or, even more dangerous to body and soul and family is making the pursuit of money the end-all of everything—and then hurting, or even ruining, your life and perhaps the lives of others in the process. The Journal warned about what overwork can do to a person. It “dehumanizes” all involved, “both masters and slaves, … [reducing] man to what he can produce.” The remedy against this is the Sabbath. “Shabbat declares that man is ultimately defined by his character and commitments, not his creations,” the article concluded.

The Bible indeed supports this understanding. Our worth isn’t made up of what we do between punching in and out of the tyrannical timeclock. By keeping the Sabbath, we declare that we are the creation, beings made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27), who Himself rested on the seventh day from the work of creation (2:1, 2). Furthermore, we are beings that can be recreated in God’s image as well (Ezekiel 20:12). By keeping the Sabbath, we declare that our dignity, our sense of self-worth, and our purpose for life come from above, from He who “is before all things, and in [which] all things consist” (Colossians 1:17). By keeping the Sabbath, we will be partaking in God’s rich, eternal blessings (Isaiah 58:13, 14), that abundant existence that surpasses any overtime pay or corner office, any holiday bonus or travel perk.

To learn more about what the Bible says about the Sabbath, check out our free resource “Rest in God—Keeping the Sabbath Holy.” 

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