Vayakel: Fire and Rest

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayakel

As winter continues to blow cold in Poughkeepsie, we come across an
irony of Jewish practice, at least for me. I like nothing better on a
cold day than to sit by a fire in the fireplace (which I’m doing as I
write this). Given that I have an oven for cooking and electricity for
lights, making a fire is more like a meditation and I experience it as
both relaxing and conducive to thought and reflection. Yet the day
devoted to both rest and reflection, Shabbat, is a day when building a
fire is explicitly prohibited, as we learn from this week’s Torah
portion, Vayakel:

“You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the
Sabbath day.” (Shmot/Exodus 35:3)

Now, what’s interesting about this verse is the ancient sages don’t
think it’s actually necessary, because in Shmot 31, we already learn
we’re not supposed to do any “work” [melacha, meaning, intentional
exerting of power over the material world]. Since lighting a fire is
certainly melacha, why does the Torah tell us separately not to light
fires on Shabbat?

One interpretation, going back to the Talmud but mentioned by Rashi
and others, is that the Torah separates out fire from all the other
categories of things not done on Shabbat in order to teach just that:
that each category (like making a fire, or cooking, or sewing, or
digging, or building, etc.) is its own separate practice and not
lumped in with all the others. That is, not sewing is its own
discipline, separate from not writing or cooking, for example.

What I like about this interpretation is how it reminds us that the
practice of Shabbat (and it does take practice) is not “all or
nothing,” but something that we can grow into over time. We might
start by taking on one of the “melachot,” such as cooking, and slowly
increasing our understanding of how to create a “palace in time”
without needing to transform our lives all at once.

On the other hand, fire itself is an interesting problem for
contemporary Shabbat observance, because there is just no getting
around the fact that driving an ordinary car, with an internal
combustion engine, involves igniting and feeding a fire- that’s how
cars move! (Let’s leave a purely electric car for another day.) There
are other issues with driving on Shabbat, but since fire is explicitly
mentioned in the Torah, one could reasonably ask how the Conservative
movement could issue a permissive ruling on the topic, which it did in
the late 50’s. (The famous “driving t’shuvah.)

The authors of the paper permitting Conservative Jews to drive to
synagogue argued that the fire in a car’s engine is not the same as
the fires prohibited by traditional Jewish Shabbat practice because
we’re not lighting the fire for the primary reason of doing something
with it directly (like cooking) but in order to power an engine and
move something (the car) from one place to another. I’m
oversimplifying, but the basic idea of this t’shuvah [rabbinic ruling]
is that the use of fire in a car’s engine is not melacha – again,
defined as purposeful exertion towards changing the world in some
material way- at least not as the Torah itself understood it.

The authors came to these conclusions in order to encourage people to
get to synagogue if they lived far away, which is a great goal, but
nevertheless, the plain meaning of our verse is that fire is not part
of Shabbat. Yes, many will drive to synagogue because it’s too far to
walk, but perhaps the ideal of a Shabbat close to the earth- a Shabbat
practice which makes one feel the heat of summer and cold of winter
while walking under the sky- is worthwhile to remember. Not lighting
fires- including engines- might mean more walking, and simpler meals,
and a calmer way of being, at least once a week, all of which are part
of making Shabbat not just restful, but holy.

Shabbat Shalom,


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