Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Is Motherhood work? Judaism says YES!

This is one of the most controversial topics today-whether being a stay at home mother can be constituted as work. There are so many different theories on this.  The one where mothers say you shouldn't look at motherhood as work at all- that calling it work devalues it, or makes you treat it like work.  The moms who believe that motherhood should be considered work- that they contribute to the household in so many immeasurable ways that it would be impossible to consider it not work.  Then you have the mothers who work out of the home who think that stay-at-home moms shouldn't call what they do work, because they do that and so much more...  And guilt abounds on each side.
The list goes on and on and on....

I'm a unique subject because I worked outside of the home with children for the first two years of my daughters' life, and I've been a stay at home mom of two since the birth of my second child.  I've had so many different phases of my journey- part-time, work from home, work outside the home, work long hours, work short hours.  You name it, I've probably tried it.  But this isn't about me...

While I never thought that I would really get into the debate personally, I have thought to explore what Judaism thinks about work, and what it might say about motherhood.

I think it's clear to say that Judaism looks at motherhood as work.  So all mothers (outside the home, or not) are Working Moms.  Did I just end the Mommy Wars?

Where did I gather my information- the Jewish Shabbat restrictions.  These are clear-cut understood and dictated restrictions.  They are specific things that we are not allowed to do on Shabbat- the day of rest.  These laws are written in the Torah: Exodus 31: 12-17.

Now here is where things get complicated.  The phrase we are referring to is this one:
And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 'Verily ye shall keep My sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that ye may know that I am the LORD who sanctify you. Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; every one that profaneth it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever doeth any work (melakha—מְלָאכָה) therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel for ever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested.
However, this just says the word "Work."  But what defines work?  Obviously in our day and age we have a relative definition.  Merriam-Webster says work is one of two things:
1. activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.  2. mental or physical activity as a means of earning income; employment. 
But Judaism's definition of work is different.  Our Rabbis (friendly reminder, I'm not a Rabbi) didn't have this definition to work off of.  Not to mention, it's not particularly helpful to the debate... any activity involving physical effort to achieve a wiping my nose is work?  What were the Rabbi's to do?  How could they define work more specifically as it relates to Shabbat.  Exodus promises death, so let's try to be clear here....

The answer lies in Genesis 2.  The first time we see in the bible this same word for work- melakha:
Heaven and earth, and all their components, were completed. With the seventh day, G-d finished all the work (melakha—מְלָאכָה) that He had done. He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that he had been doing. G-d blessed the seventh day, and he declared it to be holy, for it was on this day that G-d ceased from all the work that he had been creating to function.
So that gives us some clarity.  We form our definition of work as related to those things G-d was doing during the first six days- creating.  From there the Talmud (Mishna Shabbat 7:2) gives us these specific 39 activities that are work.
Sowing, Plowing, Reaping, Binding Sheaves, Threshing, Winnowing, Selecting, Grinding, Sifting, Kneading, Baking, Shearing Wool, Cleaning, Combing, Dyeing, Spinning, Stretching Threads, Making Loops, weaving threads, separating threads, tying a knot, untying a knot, sewing, tearing, trapping, slaughtering, skinning, salting, scraping, tanning, cutting, writing, erasing, building, breaking down, extinguishing a fire, kindling a fire, striking a final blow, carrying/transference.
So now that we know what Jews think of as work, let's think about the common activities of a Mother.  Here we'll have all sorts of arguments, since some of these things aren't only done by mothers.  Father's and grandparents and caregivers and nannys can do all of these things.  But for just a moment, let's make a list of what a 'mom' might do.The first thing a mother does is give birth.  Do you have to give birth to be a mom, no, but it's the first act to become a mother.

At it's very base level with an infant you might hold and carry your child. Feed your child, clean your child, diaper your child.  As they get a bit older you do their hair, make them food, do the laundry and the dishes.  Help them learn to spell and read, fix their broken teddies bears and toys.  You might help them finish a puzzle, build a block tower, the list goes on.

If you look at Judaism's definition of work, all mothers are clearly doing it.

Birth involves creating at it's most basic form, plus tearing, cleaning, cutting.  Infants require you to carry them (and stuff!) almost all the time.  I can't imagine a mom not at least trying to teach her child to build a block tower, or tying her child's shoes.  Cleaning messy hands, faces, noses- even if you don't include the general cleaning of a home (floors, dishes, etc.)  Baking birthday cakes, cleaning up toys, coloring and writing...The mothers of the world have been debating whether motherhood measures up to this description for decades.   

In the shomer Shabbat world (observant of Shabbat restrictions) a mom can't push a stroller to temple or carry her infant baby their either.  I can't imagine a mother anywhere telling me that's not a basic obligation of motherhood.

So, what do you think?  Is Motherhood work?  Do your views line up with the Jewish definition?

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