Toward the end of Parashat Vayeitzei, we read of the tense confrontation between Yaakov and Lavan, after Yaakov had escaped from Lavan’s home with his family and Lavan then caught up to him. During this exchange, Yaakov described to Lavan the boundless efforts he invested while tending to his sheep for twenty years, during which time, he said, he was “consumed by heat in the day and by frost by night” (31:40). Yaakov says he subjected himself to the harsh elements while shepherding Lavan’s flocks, suffering from the heat during the day and from cold exposure at night.
The Ba’al Ha-Tanya cites this verse in his classic halakhic work, Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav, in the section dealing with the obligation to maintain one’s physical wellbeing (Hilkhot Nizkei Ha-guf Va-nefesh, 4, Kuntras Acharon). He notes that the Maharshal, in Yam Shel Shelomo (Bava Kama 8:59), applies the halakhic prohibition against causing oneself physical pain to situations where this is necessary to earn a living. Even for financially gainful pursuits, the Maharshal ruled, one is forbidden to cause himself pain. The Ba’al Ha-Tanya questioned this claim in light of Yaakov’s description of the suffering he endured tending to Lavan’s flocks. Yaakov explicitly testified to having subjected himself to searing heat and brutal cold for the sake of his job. Does this not prove that causing oneself pain is permissible when this is necessary for one’s profession?
Rav Nosson Gestetner, in his Le-horot Natan (vol. 10, Y.D. 68), defends the Maharshal’s contention by suggesting a simple and sensible distinction between ordinary, common forms of discomfort, and unusual exposure to pain. Any practitioner is permitted to subject himself to the forms of discomfort that normally result from his line of work. Indeed, when the Torah commands employers to pay their workers in a timely fashion, it emphasizes, “eilav hu nosei et nafsho” (Devarim 24:15), which Rashi explains to mean that a worker sometimes exposes himself to danger, such as when harvesters climb trees to pluck fruit. Clearly, the Torah acknowledged that sometimes a degree of personal danger is involved when working. By the same token, Rav Gestetner writes, some professions, by nature, entail some physical pain. Shepherds are required to tend to their flocks even under harsh weather conditions, and thus it is perfectly acceptable for shepherds to subject themselves to this discomfort for the sake of their work. This in no way disproves the Maharshal’s ruling, which pertains to unusually excessive pain which one endures for the sake of financial gain.