“Rabbi Chelbo said in the name of Rav Huna: All who have yira’at shamayim, fear of Heaven, his words are heeded, as it is stated: ‘The end of the matter, all having been heard: Fear G-d and keep His commandments; for this is all of man’” (Kohelet 12:13). It is this message, and only because of this message, that our Sages agreed to include Kohelet in the Biblical canon. 

Not only is fear of G-d the ultimate goal of man, it is, apparently, the purpose of creation. “Rabbi Elazar said: The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: The entire world was created only for this person. Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: this person is equivalent to the entire world. Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai, and some say Rabbi Shimon ben Zoma, says: the entire world was created to be subservient to him” (Brachot 6b). 

Even if we take these statements as rabbinic hyperbole to make a point, it is quite clear that our Sages considered yira’at shamayim most important. And for good reason. 

“Because I thought that there is no fear of G-d in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife” (Breisheet 20:11). Avraham Avinu was afraid, plain and simple, that he would be killed if he revealed that Sarah was his wife. Why? Because the people had "no fear of G-d".

Jewish tradition teaches that fear of G-d is the basis of morality. A merciful, just, kind and patient G-d demands the same of man. By definition, fear of G-d means higher moral behaviour[1].  

Fear of G-d is crucial not only in the moral sphere. “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of G-d” (Mishlei 9:10). Our generation is witness to the great danger of tremendous knowledge unencumbered by ethical restraints. One who, before acting, asks oneself, what would G-d want me to do?[2] will not get an answer, but it is asking the question that makes all the difference.

The primacy of yira’at shamayim was taught to us by Moshe Rabbeinu. “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your G-d demand of you? Only[3] to fear the Lord your G-d, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your G-d with all your heart and soul” (Devarim 10:12). 

There is little, it seems, that can be more important than yira’at shamayim.

Thus it is rather surprising to read, a mere page and a half later, the following: “Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Ami said in the name of Ulla: Haneheneh m’yegio, one who benefits from the labour of his hands, is greater than a G-d-fearing person. With regard to a G-d-fearing person, it is written: ‘Happy is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly desires His mitzvot’ (Tehillim, 112:1), while with regard to one who benefits from the labour of his hands, it is written: ‘By the labour of your hands you will live; you are happy and it is good for you’ (Tehillim, 128:2). ‘You are happy’ in this world, and ‘it is good for you’ in the World-to-Come. And regarding a G-d-fearing person, ‘and it is good for you’, is not written” (Brachot 8a). 

Yira’at shamayim is important, but supporting oneself through hard work is even more so. Fearing G-d may bring one happiness, but goodness can only come from those who support themselves. While the latter are seemingly guaranteed a place in the World-to-Come, the former are not. Is it any wonder that our Sages teach that the first question G-d will ask us after our sojourn on earth is, “Were your business dealings conducted faithfully?” Only afterwards is one asked, “Did you set aside time for Torah study?” (Shabbat 31a).

Who, we might ask, is this self-supporting person? If also G-d fearing, then it is obvious that this person is better. And if not, how can that possibly be better? 

Many (see, for example, the commentaries in the Ein Yaakov) explain that Ulla is disabusing us of the mistaken notion that one who spends one's time in Torah study while being supported by others is to be preferred to one who fears G-d but is self-supporting. If fear of heaven is what G-d wants most, is it not best to spend our time in the Beit Midrash? Will not involving ourselves in the rough and tumble of the world, spending time with many whose greatest goal is to make more money, have a negative impact on us, lowering our level of awe of the Creator? The answer to the above questions, Ulla teaches, is no.  

Not only must we take this risk—no risk, no reward—the path to greater yira’at shamayim is through “the labour of one’s hands”. When one works for a living, one has the opportunity to apply Torah to one’s day-to-day life, making it meaningful, practical and relevant. It is one thing to have yira’at shamayim in the Beit Midrash; it is infinitely more impactful to display such in the workplace. Work affords so many opportunities to sanctify the name of G-d, to demonstrate the power and beauty of Torah as it informs and ennobles all aspects of life. Torah may be learned in the Beit Midrash, but it must be lived outside its confines. Haneheneh m’yegio is the path to yira’at shamayim[4].

There is an additional factor that may explain Ulla’s teaching. One who excels at yira’at shamayim, who acutely feels the presence of G-d, internalizing the notion that G-d controls all, may devalue the role of man, overly trusting in G-d to take matters into “His own hands”. One who supports oneself by “the labour of one’s hands” may run the risk of saying, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me” (Devarim 8:17). But they have little risk of violating the principle, “One may not rely on miracles”, i.e., on G-d.  

As central as belief in G-d is, we must never rely on G-d[5]. We must actively seek to make this world a better place, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help solve the challenges of the day. Perhaps Ulla worried that yira’at shamayim without hard labour may lead one to become less involved in the needs of the world, even explaining evil as the will of G-d. 

We must believe in G-d, pray to G-d, learn from G-d, but we must never rely on G-d. Let us labour hard to make the world a better place. 


[1] This presupposes a kind, just and merciful G-d, a G-d who loves truth, loves the stranger and is most humble. But if one follows a vengeful, intolerant, angry and jealous G-d, then fear of G-d leads to death, destruction and desolation. Sadly, too many follow such a G-d. While G-d may on occasion display some of those traits, and perhaps on rare occasion we must too, when our Sages explain how we must emulate G-d it is the traits of compassion and mercy that are mentioned (Shabbat 133b). We must emulate G-d by clothing the naked, visiting the sick, comforting mourners and burying the dead (Sotah 14a). We are never instructed to emulate the traits of anger, vengeance and the like.  

[2] If one wants a more concrete answer, one might ask oneself, what would my mother say about my decision? 

[3] As the Gemara already notes, while for Moshe, fearing G-d may have been no big deal—he did speak to G-d face to face—for all others, this is a most difficult mitzvah. PG, we will return to this subject when discussing the death of Rav Yochanan ben Zackai. 

[4] While this explanation may be an important one to stress today, it is highly anachronistic. During Talmudic times, the notion that one would not work and would be supported by others was, with the possible exception of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, unheard of. The prohibition to take money even for teaching Torah—how much more so for merely studying Torah—was observed by all. There was little need to teach that one who works for a living is greater than one who fears heaven.

If this is correct then, radical as it sounds (and perhaps that is why this in only a footnote), Ulla is comparing a G-d-fearing person to a self-supporting person who is not particularly G-d fearing. Nonetheless, this latter person is to be preferred, perhaps because there is greater potential for growth and to eventually become a greater yira’at shamayim, with less fear of abdicating responsibility as discussed below.

[5] Even after being given a divine promise of protection, Yaakov was nonetheless afraid that “perhaps his sins” would nullify the promise. Too much faith in G-d can have disastrous results.