What is a woman to do if her husband just won't work? He won't seek a job out. What should I do?
This provocative question invites different levels of response.
The first response is demanded by the tone of exasperation, perhaps even sorrow, of the question. This Jewish woman is in misery, perhaps in need of basic necessities of life – and has certainly lost any sense of “shalom bayit” (household harmony) with her husband.
There is no Jewish imperative to remain in an intolerable situation, and she can certainly be supported in demanding that her husband becomes again a partner in providing for the needs of the family. The ketubah (marriage contract) is explicit in expecting that a husband will provide basic needs for his wife – and modern more “egalitarian” documents add a similar expectation upon the wife.
Refusal to work is tantamount to a breach of this fundamental contract, and if there is no movement this state of affairs could lead to the break up of the marriage. I shared this question with several of my congregants who suggested that “ … she stops feeding him!”.
This approach may be effective in communicating to the husband that there’s something deeply wrong, and that there has to be change.
Other possibilities have to be considered. If the husband has in the past been responsible in holding down a job – why has this changed? Is he suffering from clinical depression – a real illness with debilitating effects? A person who is clinically depressed may have the greatest difficulty getting out of bed in the morning – even if they have a job! How much more so if there is no job, and in the current economy he sees little chance of finding employment.
Perhaps the wife can support her husband in seeking out medical attention – perhaps she can engage his family, friends and community to help him seek out treatment; many congregational rabbis would be glad to offer their assistance and expertise. Jewish Family Services can offer skilled and private counsel and support.
Suppose the family is wealthy and that there is no economic need for the husband to work. It is not clear that there is any positive command to work. In the 10 commandments the phrase “For six days you shall work and the seventh day is Shabbat for your God” is generally seen as allowing work for 6 days, if there is need for income.
However those in more fortunate economic circumstance might turn to the thoughts of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof:
“ … If I were rich I’d have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray …”
If he will engage in prayer, study, or in philanthropic work – this can be seen also as “melakhah” – as valid work.
But idle lethargy is a call for help – or a call for firm action. Our hope should be that a more healthy relationship will be restored to this family very soon.