Why forbid the very thing that ushers in Shabbat?
Table for Five: Vayahkel/Pekudei
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.
Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Thirtysix.org
The sabbath is a cornerstone of Judaism. The amazing thing is how something so central to Torah life could be left to tradition for elaboration. Make no mistake, the Oral Law has just as much authority as the Written Law. But the laws of the sabbath might have been less “controversial” had the Torah mentioned all 39 forbidden activities explicitly, instead of just the one about not lighting fire in all our dwellings.
Perhaps this anomaly can be explained with the help of another section of Talmud. There it says that someone who prepares on Friday will have food to eat on the sabbath, whereas those who do not will not have food to eat on the sabbath. Though true about the sabbath, the Talmud is talking about the World to Come, using the sabbath only as an analogy.
Perhaps the deeper meaning is, just as one must investigate the laws of the sabbath to properly observe it, likewise a person must investigate life in order to make it to the World to Come. Billions of people have missed the point of life because they just took everything about life for granted…until, that is, it was too late to change course.
Approaching the twilight of their lives they realized that they have not properly prepared to “eat” in the next world. The “sabbath” is not the time to light your fire for truth and meaning. Do it while you’re young and able to prepare yourself for the next world.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University
It seems like a perplexing paradox.
Shabbat is welcomed with the lighting of candles. It is a powerful symbol of the warmth, the light and the beauty the Sabbath brings to our homes. More, it is a vivid reminder of the purpose of the day chosen by God to reflect on the divine source of creation – the origin of our world when the Lord said “let there be light” and He separated between light and darkness.
Light is the first thing God called good.
Yet now, as our ancestors are first taught the laws of Shabbat, they are commanded “you shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the Sabbath day”!
Why forbid creating the very thing that ushers in Shabbat? Perhaps there is a profound message to us as we dedicate a day to bringing a halt to creating – a day whose purpose is not to create more but to reflect on whether what we have already created is moral, whether the light we kindle is that of the candle of sanctity or the fire of destruction.
We have come to worship the new without fully acknowledging the need to grasp that the new can bring curses in place of blessing. Progress can bring with it the problems of the untried and the unknown; Shabbat is a weekly call to carefully and cautiously weigh the consequences of our fascination with untested creation. Shabbat fulfills its purpose when our souls remain filled with the light of original creation.
Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, Author, “Why God Why?”
Shabbat is a sign which connotes the covenant between G-d and His people. It commemorates two events: One, that G-d created the world in six days and on the seventh He rested, and two, that we were slaves in Egypt and G-d liberated us and chose us as His nation and obligated us to observe His commandments, including celebrating Shabbat.
One way we observe the Shabbat is by refraining from work. But what kind of work is The Torah referring to? The definition of work is quite ambiguous.
In the instruction not to kindle a fire on Shabbat we find the answer: Kindling a fire is uniquely creative and constructive.
The Torah uses two words for work: Melacha and Avoda (usually translated as labor). Melacha is used in the Torah in two narratives: One, in the story of Genesis, and two, regarding the tasks of building the Tabernacle, G-d’s home in the desert. In both, the work was creative and constructive.
In charging us to observe Shabbat, God is saying: “I am the Creator. I have granted humans the unique ability and duty to emulate Me in being creative and constructive. I want mankind to partner with me in developing and improving the world. I recognize that in doing so, man can begin worshiping himself as a junior god, so I’m giving you Shabbat. On Shabbat I instruct you to cease from your creativity and humbly cede it to Me and bond completely with Me and rejoice in My holiness.”
Aliza Lipkin, Writer and educator, Maaleh Adumim, Israel
The Zohar states: “When G-d created the world, it could not exist until He infused it with peace. What is this peace? It is Shabbat….”
The Zohar also compares one who is angry to one who lights the fires of Gehinnom (ed. note: loosely translated as “purgatory” or “hell”). This leads to a deeper understanding of the verse: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.”
On Shabbat, we must avoid anger and discord. Shabbat is a day of union between the Jewish people and G-d.
Shabbat is also associated with the tangible feminine presence of G-d known as the Shechinah. The Shechinah will not reside in a place of discord. Therefore it is incumbent upon us to make peace with family and friends to properly welcome the Shechinah into our dwelling places.
Given this information, we can now understand why we are told of the commandment not to kindle a flame on Shabbat before the building of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was also meant to be a meeting place for the nation and G-d. Just like the sanctity of Shabbat requires peace, the Tabernacle also requires peace to function successfully.
All Shabbat preparations and the activities we engage in on Shabbat are designed to infuse the atmosphere with peace. Since we are not permitted to light a fire on Shabbat, we are commanded to light candles before Shabbat. This hints to us to resolve our disputes before Shabbat, leaving us with the light and warmth of the Shechinah to enjoy.
Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, BCC/ Columbia-Presbyterian and Congregation Netivot Shalom
The commentary Daat Zekeikim underscores how odd this verse is. We already know not to do work (melacha) on Shabbat, so what does this add? They resolve that this verse pre-empts a natural instinct. Many melachot are obviously work (sowing, kneading, etc), but most people would not consider lighting a fire to be worthy of the category of “work.”
The ease and accessibility of fire demonstrates the need for our verse. There is wisdom in highlighting the effort and creativity that go into the simple things we often overlook.
In 2023 America, it’s especially easy to take fire for granted. Shabbat fosters gratitude and awareness about where everything comes from, including that which comes easily.
In this spirit, our verse can prompt spiritual introspection on how we want to appreciate the things that are obvious in our lives. This could be a physical resource like fire, or even a person or relationship. By refraining from lighting a flame on Shabbat, we notice its value. And in so doing, we ignite a different spark: the luminosity of the things and people that show up for us most. Who/what are you overlooking and how can you celebrate it this Shabbat?
With thanks to Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, Aliza Lipkin, and Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn
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