vayakhel pekudei

In this week’s Parasha we find the prohibition against kindling a fire on Shabbat, otherwise known as Hav’arah.  The Torah says “Lo teva’aru eish b’chol mosh’voteichem b’yom ha’Shabbat,” “Do not light a fire in any of your dwelling places, on the day of Shabbat.” Shabbat without the use of heating and lighting would be a pretty miserable experience- but luckily the Rabbis had an answer: Since the Torah does not say, “Lo Tihiyeh,” “Do not have a fire,” the halacha is that it is permissible to have a pre-existing fire on Shabbat. 

Indeed, in response to the Karaites, the scriptural literalists of their day, the rabbinic tradition even had a bracha for the Shabbat lights– “Baruch attah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu le’hadlik ner shel Shabbat – Blessed be You our Eternal God, sovereign of the universe, who sanctifies us through doing mitzvot and who commands us to light the lights of Shabbat.” Even further, the Sages instituted the rule that people should eat hot food every Shabbat – hence the tradition of cholent or adafina!

But what else do we learn from this strange story of what might be called Rabbinic counter intuitive interpretation?

Firstly there is a real issue about lighting fire on Shabbat – but why? Why is it singled out in this way? Shabbat is the way we celebrate Creation, imitating the work of God by taking control of our own time.  Perhaps the answer can be found in the twin symbols around the Mishkan demonstrating the presence of God: – a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

Together the symbols are said to comprise the heavens – the Hebrew word ‘shamayim’ (heavens) is said by some to be an amalgam of the two words eish (fire) and mayim (water) – eternal opposites which in the heavens are able to live peacefully with each other.  So to create fire on Shabbat may be seen as encroaching too closely onto the work of God.

Or maybe it is seen as simply too dangerous, for fire, while it can bring warmth and a sense of security as one sits around it, is also potentially a symbol of destruction  and fear, the fires of Gehinnom come to mind.

So to create fire on Shabbat, without being able to carry water, might be dangerous in all sorts of ways Our passion for closeness to the divine as symbolised by fire is important, but just as important is its twin symbolised by water – Life, in its many and varied expressions

Rabbinic tradition does not think that lighting a fire on Shabbat is simply a practical hazard but that it is in some way a metaphor we need to take care about.

Possibly it is a metaphor for an inappropriate passionate union with God, or as the seventeenth century Rabbi Isaac Horowitz of Prague (the Shlah) writes: “This alludes to the fires of machloket / to disputes and ka’as / to anger.  A person must always be careful not to kindle these fires, but especially so on Shabbat.  On Shabbat, the “fires” of Gehinnom do not burn, but one who gets angry on Shabbat or causes machloket causes them to be rekindled, God forbid.  (Shnei Luchot Ha’berit: Torah Shebichtav).

He sees fire as a symbol for inappropriate passion – in this case anger towards others. By allowing ourselves to become angry on Shabbat we will destroy the essential meaning of Shabbat – or rest and recuperation and renewal. He brings to his argument also the folk tradition that those souls in Gehinnom get Shabbat off from their punishments, and that we would punish them even further by our actions.  It is a nice gloss, and certainly a teaching worth pursuing – by not allowing ourselves the luxury of becoming angry on Shabbat, we can teach ourselves self control and even learn to see our lives and its irritations in perspective.

The Rabbinic decision to take this verse and use it to not only ensure that there would be fire in the homes of the Jews, but that this would be sanctified is extraordinarily creative. It seems to have been the critical point between the Rabbinic Pharisaic tradition of Oral Torah, and the exacting tradition of the Saduceeas and Karaities that Torah must be understood only in a literal way, without the sophistication and the explication of the Oral Torah. In lighting Shabbat candles and blessing them, we are aligning ourselves with a tradition of thoughtfulness, and creative adaptiveness designed to meet the needs of the people. Shining a light into Shabbat in a contained and careful way addresses the issues of what fire might mean – too much passion towards God or else anger against others.

Maimonides, in his compilation of Jewish Law the Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Shabbat  5:1), explains the argument regarding starting a fire on Shabbat thus – “this law refers to the person who lights a fire on Shabbat when he needs the ash” – in other words, the action is only forbidden if it can be completed, if there is a final and physical product.
            The end product of our lighting Shabbat candles is real – a sense of peacefulness and connectedness to tradition. Creating a light in this way as Shabbat comes in (traditionally the candles are lit 18 minutes before Shabbat so as to be burning well before the onset of the new day) means that we create what Isaiah calls oneg Shabbat – the delight of the Sabbath day, something that surely mirrors the events of creation.

But while the end product of lighting Shabbat candles is a peacefulness that is almost tangible, rather than an act of creation in itself, the idea that the rabbis had that  for the action to be complete there had to have a product is one that continues to intrigue me.

The soul is described sometimes as a light for God, a candle that flickers sometimes more strongly, other times less so. But it is not enough to be a flickering light, we should aim to be beacons of light in the world which provide more than good intentions or spiritual yearning – there must be an end product – an action that creates a lasting effect.

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