A Day in the Life of a Jew


A productive life requires an awareness of time’s inexorable flow and a system for time management. To this end, we consult a variety of paper or electronic grids in which the day’s expanse is segmented into hours and minutes and appropriately color-coded into time-allotments for work, meals, leisure and repose.

The reliance on calendar, clock and appointment book is one we share with all hour-conscious inhabitants of planet time. As Jews, however, we are also guided by a more subtle calendar, a more spiritual clock: the calendar and clock of history. As Jews, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are as central to our concept of morning, noon and evening as the sun’s arc across the sky; Adam, Moses and King David mark our year as prominently as the turning of the seasons; and the twelve sons of Jacob, progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel, are as basic to our daily schedule as the twelve numerals etched on our clock-face or the twelve spiral-bound pages hanging on our wall.

The Twelve Sons of Jacob

As related in the Book of Genesis,[1] the twelve sons of Jacob were born from four different wives and are divided into three general categories:

a) The six sons of Leah—Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun.

b) The two sons of Rachel, Jacob’s primary wife and “the mainstay of the house” of Israel[2]—Joseph and Benjamin.

c) The four sons of the two “handmaidens,” Bilhah and Zilpah—Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher.

A similar division defines their roles as signposts in our daily lives: the sons of Leah embody the activities on our daily schedule, the sons of Rachel represent the primary modes of Jewish life, and “the sons of the handmaidens” run as the auxiliary themes through our day that accompany our every action and endeavor.

Synagogue, Study Hall and Marketplace

A day in the life of a Jew begins with prayer, the “service of the heart.”[3] The first conscious thoughts of the day, and its first uttered words, are of our awareness of G-d’s presence in our lives and our indebtedness to Him for our every living breath.[4] And though formal prayer must by necessity wait until one has gotten out of bed, washed, dressed and rushed[5] to the synagogue, it is the very first item on our daily agenda. In the words of the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), “The time for reciting the morning prayers begins at sunrise…. From the onset of the time for prayer, a person is forbidden to visit one’s friend … to attend to one’s personal affairs, or to embark on a journey, before praying the morning prayers.”[6]

After the morning prayers, the Jew proceeds “from the synagogue to the study hall” for a daily “set time for Torah learning.”[7] From there he ventures out into the “secular” world to attend to his material affairs and the business of earning a living.[8]

These three activities are chronicled by the sons of Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah represent the various phases of prayer and its “service of the heart”; Issachar represents the study of Torah; and Zebulun represents the Jew’s foray into the marketplace.

The Service of the Heart

Prayer is a “ladder set upon the earth whose head touches the heavens.”[9] This ladder consists of four rungs—Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; or love, awe, integration and self-abnegation.

The heart of man is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of identifiable emotions. But in a most general sense, we recognize two primary drives: the impulse to approach and come near, and the impulse to recoil and withdraw. To the first category belong such emotions as love, yearning, and kindness; to the second category, feelings such as awe, fear, reverence and humility.

The repertoire of the heart also includes emotions that combine both these motions of self. A mature emotional relationship will include feelings that are both loving and revering—feelings that integrate a striving for closeness with a restraining awe.

Indeed, such a synthesis of love and awe is the heart’s highest form of emotional expression. But an even greater achievement of the heart is the negation of emotion. For all emotions, whether of the self-extending, self-contracting or “integrating” sort, are a form of self-expression; and to truly relate to someone or something that lies beyond the self, one must divest oneself of every vestige of self-interest and self-regard.

These are the four rungs in the ladder of prayer. In the first phase of the “service of the heart” (which culminates in the first section of the Shema), the objective is to develop a feeling of love towards G-d, a yearning and craving to draw close to Him. The second phase (coinciding with the second section of the Shema) is the development of feelings of reverence and awe toward G-d. The third phase (associated with the blessing “True and Enduring,” recited between the Shema and the Amidah) is the fusion of love and awe in our relationship with G-d. In the fourth phase (attained during the silent recitation of the Amidah) we transcend emotion itself, abnegating all feeling and desire to achieve an utter commitment and unequivocal devotion to G-d.

In the terminology of Kabbalah and Chassidism, love and awe are the eyes and the ears of the heart. Sight is the most intimate of the senses; hearing, the most distant and detached.[10] Hence love—the heart’s yen to draw close—is its faculty of “sight,” and awe—the heart’s impulse to retreat and withdraw—is its sense of “hearing.”

Reuben, whose name derives from the Hebrew re’iyah, “sight,” and who was so named by his mother because “G-d has seen my suffering; now my husband shall love me,”[11] thus represents the first stage of prayer—the element of “love” in our service of the heart. Simeon—from shemi’ah, “hearing,” so named in response to the fact that “G-d has heard that I am rejected”[12]—represents the second stage of prayer, the heart’s recoil in reverence and awe. Levi, meaning “attachment” and “cleaving” (his birth prompted Leah to say, “Now my husband shall cleave to me, for I have borne him three sons”[13]) represents the union of love and awe in the third stage of prayer. And Judah, whose name means “he who concedes” (“This time I shall concede thanks to G-d,”[14] proclaimed Leah upon Judah’s birth) represents the fourth rung in the ladder of prayer—the self-abnegation to G-d we express in the silent Amidah.[15]

The Partnership

Before his passing, Jacob summoned his twelve sons and “spoke to them … and blessed them, each according to his blessing.”[16] Two hundred and thirty-three years later, Moses did the same with the twelve tribes of Israel, who now each numbered several tens of thousands of souls. Jacob’s and Moses’ blessings express the individual character of each tribe and its distinct role within the community of Israel.

Jacob’s blessings to Zebulun and Issachar were:
Zebulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea; a harbor for ships shall he be…. Issachar is a strong ass,[17] couching down between the fences….[18]

Moses’ parting words to the two tribes were:
 Rejoice, Zebulun, in your excursions, and Issachar in your tents.[19]

Our sages explain:
Zebulun and Issachar made a partnership between them. Zebulun dwelled at the seashore, and would go out in his ships to engage in trade and make a profit, and support Issachar, who sat and occupied himself with the study of Torah.[20]

Issachar and Zebulun thus represent the other two major items on the Jew’s daily schedule. After climbing the four rungs of the heart to serve G-d in prayer, the Jew moves “from the synagogue to the study hall” to bind his mind to G-d through the study of the Torah, G-d’s communication of His wisdom and will to man. Following that, the Jew goes out into the world as a businessman or professional, to “know Him in all your ways”[21] and do “all your deeds for the sake of Heaven.”[22]

For every Jew, whether by vocation a “Zebulun” or an “Issachar,” includes both activities in his daily schedule. The most involved businessman or laborer is not free of the obligation to study at least “one chapter in the morning and one chapter in the evening.”[23] And even the most faithful occupant of the tents of Torah and its most ardent “beast of burden” is also a citizen of the material world: by necessity and design, he, too, participates in the give-and-take of economic life, and is told that this, too, must be made part and parcel of his life as a Jew and his relationship with G-d.[24]

Joseph and Benjamin

“All the prophets,” says the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yochanan, “prophesied only regarding [the rewards of] the baal teshuvah. But regarding the perfect tzaddik— ‘No[25] eye has beheld it save Yours, G-d.’”[26]

Rabbi Yochanan, remarks the Talmud, is expressing an opposite opinion from that of another sage, Rabbi Abbahu, who stated: “In the place that the baal teshuvah stands, the perfect tzaddik cannot stand.”[27]

Tzaddik means “righteous one”; baal teshuvah means “one who returns.” In the most literal sense, a tzaddik is a person who lives his entire life in complete conformity with the divine will, while a baal teshuvah is a penitent—a person who has digressed from the proper path but subsequently repents his failings and returns to a life of goodness and obedience to G-d’s will.

In a broader sense, tzaddik and baal teshuvah are two modes of existence—two approaches to everything one does in the course of one’s day, from prayer and its “service of the heart,” to the study of Torah, to one’s dealings in the marketplace.

In the tzaddik approach to life, a person focuses wholly upon the good in himself and his world. He sees his mission in life as the endeavor to cultivate his own positive traits, the goodness he sees in others, and all that is pure and holy in G-d’s world. Anything negative is to be suppressed and rejected, and utterly disdained. When evil must, by necessity, be combated, this is to be achieved not by engaging it, but by rising above it—by increasing the goodness in oneself and in the world so that the evil simply dissipates as darkness melts away before a great light.

The teshuvah approach is to deal with the negative in oneself and one’s environment: to struggle with it rather than reject it, to transform it rather than transcend it; to uncover and extract the kernel of goodness implicit within every object and force in G-d’s creation.

As the diverse opinions of Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Abbahu convey, each approach has its advantages over the other: the approach of the tzaddik attains heights which “no eye has beheld save” G-d’s, while the approach of teshuvah achieves a place on which “the perfect tzaddik cannot stand.”

The tzaddik’s “service of the heart,” undisturbed by any negative emotions and drives, unleashes the heart’s holy passions with a purity and perfection that the baal teshuvah cannot even hope to approximate. The baal teshuvah’s prayer, on the other hand, is a war—a war between the good and evil strivings in his heart, between its G-dly and animal passions. But this war, this struggle, fires his love, awe, attachment and self-abnegation to G-d to an intensity unparalleled by that of the tzaddik. And the process of this struggle offers the opportunity to ultimately vanquish the enemy and transform it into an ally—to strip the heart’s profane strivings of their profanity and redirect them as holy strivings.

The tzaddik’s Torah study, unclouded by erroneous suppositions and false leads, assimilates the divine wisdom with a purity and perfection that the baal teshuvah cannot know. On the other hand, the teshuvah mode of learning, which struggles through a maze of fallacies and misunderstandings in its pursuit of truth, attains a depth of knowledge and a degree of identification with its subject which cannot be achieved by a mind that follows an unobstructed path to the core of every idea. Indeed, in the teshuvah approach to Torah, the refuted arguments and the dispelled falsehoods themselves reveal dimensions of the divine truth that cannot be accessed by the tranquil study of the tzaddik.[28]

When the tzaddik deals with the material world, he focuses directly and exclusively upon those resources which he enlists in his service of G-d; everything else simply does not exist for him. Thus the tzaddik achieves a perfect sublimation of material aspects of his existence, and remains unsullied by his involvement in the give and take of material life. For the baal teshuvah, on the other hand, the marketplace is a minefield of negative influences and temptations, which invariably taint him and, at times, even overpower him. But his struggle with these alien elements, and his ultimate triumph over them, means that they, too, become part and parcel of his “knowing G-d in all your ways.” Hence, the baal teshuvah achieves a broader, more comprehensive service of G-d in his material life than the tzaddik, for his relationship with G-d includes elements of G-d’s creation which remain outside the sphere of the tzaddik’s “perfect” service.

The name “Joseph” means “he shall add”—upon Joseph’s birth, his mother expressed the hope that “G-d shall add to me another son.”[29] The deeper significance of these words is that Joseph represents the endeavor of teshuvah to “add another son”—to transform all that is “other” and alien in oneself and one’s world into a “son,” thereby adding it to the positive and holy realm of one’s existence.

“Benjamin” means “son of the right”—Jacob so named Rachel’s second child because this was the only one of his sons to be born in the Holy Land.[30] Benjamin thus represents the utter righteousness and pristine holiness of the tzaddik.

Four Motifs

The four “sons of the handmaidens”—Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher—are four motifs that accompany the daily life of the Jew: judiciousness, engagement, blessing and saturation.

“G-d gave me justice,” proclaimed Rachel upon the birth of Jacob’s first son by her handmaiden, Bilhah, and named him Dan, Hebrew for “judgment.” [31] “Dan shall be the judge of his people,” said Jacob in blessing him before his passing. [32] If you meet a person, says the Talmud, who is forever insisting on justice, this is a sure sign that he is from the tribe of Dan.[33]

“Naphtali” means “engagement” and “connection”—Bilhah’s second son was so named by Rachel to signify the fact that “I have engaged my sister, and I have prevailed.”[34]

Both Jacob and Moses blessed Asher with the blessing of oil. “His bread is saturated with oil,”[35] said Jacob; “He dips his feet in oil,”[36] blessed Moses. In Torah law and Chassidic teaching, “oil” signifies the quality of saturation: the nature of oil is that when it comes in contact with something, it “permeates it in its entirety.”[37]

Finally, “Gad” means “blessing” and “good fortune.” “Good fortune has come,”[38] said Leah upon giving this name to Zilpah’s elder son.

As the Jew prays (Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah), studies (Issachar) and deals (Zebulun), whether with the perfect holiness of the tzaddik (Benjamin) or the transforming struggles of teshuvah (Joseph), the “four sons of the handmaidens” attend his every deed and endeavor: a judiciousness that measures everything against exacting standards of right and wrong (“Dan”); a sense of connectedness to G-d and perpetual engagement with Him (“Naphtali”); a “holistic” approach to life, in which one is fully invested in what one is doing so that it saturates one’s thoughts, feelings, and every nook and cranny of one’s being (“Asher”); and the recognition that we cannot do it on our own—that everything we achieve must be aided by G-d’s blessing our efforts with success (“Gad”).

Based on the Rebbe’s writings and talks, including a reshimah (journal entry) entitled “The Daily Schedule”[39]

Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.


[1]. Genesis 29:31-30:25; 35:16-26; 33:1-2, 6-7.

[2]. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 71:2.

[3]. Deuteronomy 11:12, as per Talmud, Taanit 2a.

[4]. Shulchan Aruch HaRav (earlier version), Orach Chaim 1:4-6; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 1:2.

[5]. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 90:12.

[6]. Ibid., 89:1-3.

[7]. Ibid., 155:1, after Talmud, Berachot 64a and Shabbat 31a.

[8]. Shulchan Aruch, ibid., 156:1.

[9]. Genesis 28:12; cf. Zohar, part I, 266b; Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 68:12.

[10]. In sight, thousands if not millions of details are “grasped” as a single imprint upon the retina; the mind then proceeds to process all this information, drawing from the all-embracing image imparted by the eye. The faculty of hearing functions in the opposite manner: the ear hears an idea word by word, syllable by syllable; or it hears a musical composition note by note. From these sounds, each of which is meaningless on its own, the listener “recreates” the idea or the composition in his mind, piecing it together bit by bit.
It is for this reason that sight is the most “convincing” of our faculties—once we have seen something “with our own eyes,” nothing will dissuade us from the truth of this intimately-held truth—while something heard is a more “objective” and impersonal reality.

[11]. Genesis 29:32.

[12]. Ibid., v. 33.

[13]. Ibid., v. 34.

[14]. Ibid., v. 35.

[15]. For a detailed discussion of the four stages of prayer and their connection to the first four sons of Jacob, see Torah Ohr, Vayechi 45a-d.
The four stages of prayer are preceded by three preparations, alluded to by the three ancestors of Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah: 1) the giving of charity, alluded to by their great-grandfather, Abraham, the exemplar of lovingkindness; 2) immersion in a mikvah, alluded to by their grandfather Isaac, who is described by the Torah as a digger of wells; and 3) the study of mussar (inspirational and moralistic teachings), alluded to by Jacob, who embodies Torah and “truth.”

[16]. Genesis 49:28.

[17]. “Persevering in the burden of Torah, like strong ass who is burdened with a heavy load”—Rashi, on verse.

[18]. Genesis, ibid., vv. 13-14.

[19]. Deuteronomy 33:18.

[20]. Rashi on Deuteronomy ibid.; Midrash Tanchuma, Vayechi 11; et al.

[21]. Proverbs 3:6.

[22]. Ethics of the Fathers 2:12.

[23]. Talmud, Menachot 99b.

[24]. There are two basic ways in which this is achieved, corresponding to the two maxims quoted above: “All your deeds should be for the sake of Heaven” means that everything one does is done as a means to the end of serving G-d (e.g., one engages in business in order to earn money to give to charity); “Know Him in all your ways” means that one’s everyday activities are not only a means to a G-dly end, but are themselves ways of experiencing G-d (e.g., observing the hand of G-d in the dozens of “lucky coincidences” that add up to a single business deal, thereby gaining a deeper appreciation of His providence).

[25]. Isaiah 64:3.

[26]. Talmud, Berachot 34b.

[27]. Ibid.

[28]. These two modes of Torah study are exemplified by the different methodologies followed by the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds—see The Inside Story (VHH, 1997), pp. 275-278.

[29]. Genesis 30:24.

[30]. Ibid. 35:18; Rashi on verse.

[31]. Ibid. 30:6.

[32]. Ibid. 49:16.

[33]. Talmud, Pesachim 4a.

[34]. Genesis 30:8; see Rashi on verse.

[35]. Genesis 49:20.

[36]. Deuteronomy 33:24.

[37]. See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 105:5; Likkutei Sichot, vol. I, pp. 102ff.

[38]. Genesis 30:11; Rashi on verse.

[39]. Reshimot #20.


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18 years ago

this is very long and hard to understand for young people.
Things that could be improved…
everything, basically
i hope that you will take what i have said into effect.
yours, Pete

17 years ago

i love this site it really hel[ped me with my project i was doing!

16 years ago

it was good but lots of complicated words to much detail

15 years ago

great site but i agree it is a little complicated.
all in all, thanks. this helped a lot with my project.

14 years ago

i am 14 years old an am doing a project on life of a jew at home.if you could help me by sending a much easy and short explanation to my mail adress it would be realy nice. thanks

13 years ago

this sight was good really helpful

13 years ago

It was really, good. Like others have said, a little complex but overall, a very good job well done

Wouldnt you like to know!!!
12 years ago

what are some daily and weekly rituals of jews?

steve simmons
12 years ago

i am doing homework on this subject and your help would be great realy good site thanks

11 years ago

I honestly just skimmed it but how was a life of a Jew impacted by Judaism? Like good, bad like how?

8 years ago

hi people I am very happy and cool yaayy!!!!! BE HAPPY NOT SAD!!!!!!!!!

Sam Jackson-Wilkins
6 years ago

I like this page it good I do not know jwish stuuff until now it is help i like i thank person writer he big help for my study thank

5 years ago

Its only complicated if you have no previous knowledge on the subject. I enjoyed it as I am learning and researching the 12 tribes of Israel. I understood and received it all

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