kindling fire on shabbat

Joel Cohen’s Question:

After stating clearly that the Sabbath is a day of rest, that on that day work is prohibited at penalty of death, the Torah‘s very next sentence adds a separate command: "You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day" (Exodus 35:1-3). Presumably, when the prohibition came into being kindling fire was "work." Starting a fire was not as simple as flipping a lighter today.

The Sabbath is a day of restful enjoyment (menuchah). Why, then, have the rabbis gone so far out of their way to undermine that enjoyment by expanding the fire kindling bar? Their bar includes so many things that are not "fire" in the traditional sense and which don’t involve any form of work. For example, turning on an air conditioner to better enjoy the Sabbath on a brutally hot day; turning on a CD player to listen to a Torah class to comply with the command of learning Torah; or pressing an elevator button to go the 20th floor for Sabbath dinner, rather than engage in the cardio torture incurred in climbing 19 flights.

Given that the air conditioner, the CD player and elevator don’t require "work," and certainly weren’t considered as "fire kindling" by Moses when the Oral Tradition began, why does barring them make any sense today? Was that what the Torah intended when Moses received it from G‑d?

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, this week you have addressed the basis of the principle of "Rest on Shabbat" and how that same principle that was introduced in the desert over three thousand years ago is still relevant today. It is a gigantic topic and I will try to discuss some of the basic ideas. The translation of melachah (the term used by the Torah to describe the activities proscribed on Shabbat) as "work" is overly simplistic. This week’s Torah reading is actually the basis for the derivation of the 39 types of activity that are forbidden on Shabbat. The Talmud comments on the juxtaposition of the laws of Shabbat and the description of the building of the Tabernacle at the beginning of the reading. It derives that the reason that these two seemingly unrelated laws are written next to one another is to teach that the 39 categories of work that were used in the building of the Tabernacle are the same 39 categories of work that are forbidden on Shabbat.

Now, for the harder question of how we can apply these ancient categories to the modern world. You mention the relationship of the prohibition against kindling to electricity. Actually, at the beginning of the twentieth century when electricity began to be used in private homes, the question of its permissibility on Shabbat was discussed. Could you turn on a light switch? Is it really "work"—as you asked? The early authorities believed that electricity was prohibited based on the verse prohibiting kindling. However, as the understanding of how electricity evolved, the rabbinic authorities realized that electricity is not really the same as lighting a fire. Rather, they identified it with the prohibition of "completing the job," and explained that turning on a light switch is completing the circuit which allows the light to go on.

This issue, not surprisingly, is still being discussed today. Can one send email on Friday afternoon to someone in Israel where it is already Shabbat? Can you leave your computer on to be able to check the news or the sports or maybe even your emails on Shabbat? The answers are often matters of dispute between rabbinic authorities. However, they all point to the fact that the laws at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading are still very much alive.

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

When G‑d announced, "Thou shall not steal," the people of the time undoubtedly understood stealing to mean reaching for your friend’s wallet and taking his money, or entering his home and taking his food and clothing. Ponzi schemes and pirated software were definitely not what they thought of, yet today this "thievery" is on all of our minds. Would our litigator say that Madoff did not "steal"?

Point being, even if electricity doesn’t seem to be fire in the conventional sense, this does not necessarily mean that it is not included in the prohibition.

Nonetheless, I believe that the other prohibition involved in electricity, namely, effecting the completion of a new object by closing the circuit, captures the essence of the melachot forbidden on Shabbat.

The Hebrew language has two words for "work"—avodah and melachah. Avodah is a general term meaning work, while melachah has a very precise halachic meaning. On Shabbat, melachah is prohibited.

The Torah specifically mentions two melachot, kindling a fire and carrying in a public domain. The Mishnah further explains that 39 different categories of melachah went into building the Tabernacle. While these categories of labor refer to the construction of the Tabernacle, they actually encompass all forms of human productivity. These melachot are not a haphazard collection of activities, and do not necessarily represent physical exertion—as is evident from the prohibition of carrying in the public domain. Rather, the principle behind them is that they represent constructive, creative effort, demonstrating man’s mastery over nature. This is where completing an object by closing the circuit comes in.

Here’s the punch line: Refraining from melachah on Shabbat signals our recognition that, despite our human creative abilities, G‑d is the ultimate Creator and Master.

At first glance, the numerous laws and their many nuances would seem to present a hindrance to Oneg Shabbat—enjoying and delighting in Shabbat. However, the unique way in which we pursue ordinary activities on Shabbat actually serves as a constant reminder of the special nature of this day.

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