Fire: The Ultimate Creative Act

The beginning of this morning’s Torah portion has a verse that I find peculiar.  Its third line reads לא תבערו אש בכל מושבותיכם ביום השבת, “You shall not allow a fire to burn in any of your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.”[1]  The reason I find this verse strange is that the Israelites were already instructed in the 10 Commandments לא תעשה כל מלאכה, “You shall not perform any creative activity,” [2]  so why is there a verse singling out the prohibition on fire? It is the only one of the מלאכות that is singled out, and our sages assert that there must be a meaning behind this.

Interestingly, the Karaites took this verse literally, asserting that any fire that was burning had to be extinguished before Shabbat began. They would therefore spend Shabbat in the dark, especially during the long winter months. Rabbinic interpretation took this as that one cannot cause a new fire to burn on Shabbat but an existing fire could be left burning for the duration of Shabbat.


Two schools of thought in Talmud Yevamot disagree as to why the prohibition on fire is specifically mentioned.  One is that of Rabbi Yosi, who states that fire is not considered a מלאכה, a form of creative activity, but rather a לאו, simply something that one should not use on the Sabbat. The other opinion is Rabbi Nathan’s, who asserts that fire is a מלאכה and is listed specifically as an example to show that each מלאכה on its own should not be done.[3]

I am not persuaded by either rabbi but rather by a third statement from the medieval commentator Nachmanides (Ramban).  He explains that fire is specified because unlike the other מלאכות, it is permissible on Festivals but is prohibited on Shabbat.  In fact, that Talmud states that the restrictions on Festivals and Shabbat are the exactly the same משום אכל נפש בלבד, except for fire used for cooking.[4] Nachmanides asserts that the Torah wanted to make clear the distinction between Festivals and the Sabbath, and hence a separate statement was created to make clear that fire, while permitted on Festivals, is forbidden on the Sabbath.

I relate to Nachmanides’ teaching because I love the use of fire, especially for cooking.  Since getting married my cooking skills have regressed to making eggs for Ariela and me, as I am blessed to have a wonderful wife, Karina, who cooks gourmet dishes from scratch. Wonderful aromas waft from our kitchen, especially on Friday afternoons.  Six days a week we cook with fire the kitchen, yet on the seventh day we get to sit back and appreciate the beauty of God’s creation.  Without this seventh day to reflect on creation, the other six have less meaning.  To me, the statement on not using fire on Shabbat means being able to spend time with friends and family, reaping the benefits of the work done on Friday.

We know how important rest is and how ceasing from one’s work can recharge our batteries. At the same time, we recognize that some have chosen careers that don’t afford them the opportunity to rest. A businessperson, who has to produce and sell a certain amount of inventory, make sure to make payroll and constantly develop innovative ideas to solve problems, does not always have the opportunity to take a break and rest. That is why we are grateful that so many businessmen and women have joined us for this restful Shabbat so that we can honor them for the countless hours of hard work that they do.

As we are immersed in another Shabbat, I think it is important to think about what we do to differentiate Shabbat from the rest of the week.  Some might reflect on the experience of participating in Shabbat services with festive song and prayer and with our new hazzan as a distinguishing experience of Shabbat.  Others might think, as I do, about relaxing with friends and family.  Most of all, what sets Shabbat apart is taking a step back and reveling in God’s creation, be it through seeing new leaves on trees (G-d willing soon), the recent snowfall or blooming flowers.  During the week we are occupied in the details of creative acts, and Shabbat is the opportunity to pause, step back and see the big picture.  I hope that this coming week gives each of us opportunities to appreciate both the creative acts that we perform and those that occur by virtue of our living in this world.

[1] Exodus 35:3

[2] Exodus 20:9

[3] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Yevamot 6b

[4] Ramban on Exodus 35:3 ד”ה לא תבערו אש בכל מושבותיכם ביום השבת


Megilla Magic: Unique Motifs in the Book of Esther

Unique Factors about the Megillat Esther

  • Parts are read in Eicha Trope
  • Lines are repeated (call-and-response)
  • Words are repeated due to uncertainty as to which preposition is correct
  • Emphasis when King Ahasheurus’s dream occurs
  • Special Trope
  • Hanging of Haman’s 10 Sons in one breath


  1. Parts of the Megilla read in Eicha (Lamentations) Trope


ז  וְהַשְׁקוֹת בִּכְלֵי זָהָב, וְכֵלִים מִכֵּלִים שׁוֹנִים; וְיֵין מַלְכוּת רָב, כְּיַד הַמֶּלֶךְ. 1:7 And they gave them drink in vessels of gold–the vessels being diverse one from another–and royal wine in abundance, according to the bounty of the king.


ו  אֲשֶׁר הָגְלָה, מִירוּשָׁלַיִם, עִם-הַגֹּלָה אֲשֶׁר הָגְלְתָה, עִם יְכָנְיָה מֶלֶךְ-יְהוּדָה–אֲשֶׁר הֶגְלָה, נְבוּכַדְנֶצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל. 2:6 who had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captives that had been carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away.



טו  הָרָצִים יָצְאוּ דְחוּפִים, בִּדְבַר הַמֶּלֶךְ, וְהַדָּת נִתְּנָה, בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה; וְהַמֶּלֶךְ וְהָמָן יָשְׁבוּ לִשְׁתּוֹת, וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן נָבוֹכָה. 3:15 The posts went forth in haste by the king’s command, and the decree was given out in Shushan the castle; and the king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Shushan was perplexed.


א  וּמָרְדֳּכַי, יָדַע אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר נַעֲשָׂה, וַיִּקְרַע מָרְדֳּכַי אֶת-בְּגָדָיו, וַיִּלְבַּשׁ שַׂק וָאֵפֶר; וַיֵּצֵא בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר, וַיִּזְעַק זְעָקָה גְדוֹלָה וּמָרָה.


ג  וּבְכָל-מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה, מְקוֹם אֲשֶׁר דְּבַר-הַמֶּלֶךְ וְדָתוֹ מַגִּיעַ–אֵבֶל גָּדוֹל לַיְּהוּדִים, וְצוֹם וּבְכִי וּמִסְפֵּד; שַׂק וָאֵפֶר, יֻצַּע לָרַבִּים.

1 Now when Mordecai knew all that was done, Mordecai rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and a bitter cry;


3 And to every province where the king’s commandment and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes.


טז  לֵךְ כְּנוֹס אֶת-כָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים הַנִּמְצְאִים בְּשׁוּשָׁן, וְצוּמוּ עָלַי וְאַל-תֹּאכְלוּ וְאַל-תִּשְׁתּוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים לַיְלָה וָיוֹם–גַּם-אֲנִי וְנַעֲרֹתַי, אָצוּם כֵּן; וּבְכֵן אָבוֹא אֶל-הַמֶּלֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-כַדָּת, וְכַאֲשֶׁר אָבַדְתִּי, אָבָדְתִּי. 4:16 ‘Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast in like manner; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.’


ג  וַתַּעַן אֶסְתֵּר הַמַּלְכָּה, וַתֹּאמַר–אִם-מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ הַמֶּלֶךְ, וְאִם-עַל-הַמֶּלֶךְ טוֹב:  תִּנָּתֶן-לִי נַפְשִׁי בִּשְׁאֵלָתִי, וְעַמִּי בְּבַקָּשָׁתִי.


ד  כִּי נִמְכַּרְנוּ אֲנִי וְעַמִּי, לְהַשְׁמִיד לַהֲרוֹג וּלְאַבֵּד; וְאִלּוּ לַעֲבָדִים וְלִשְׁפָחוֹת נִמְכַּרְנוּ, הֶחֱרַשְׁתִּי–כִּי אֵין הַצָּר שֹׁוֶה, בְּנֵזֶק הַמֶּלֶךְ.

7:3 Then Esther the queen answered and said: ‘If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request;


7:4 for we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish. But if we had been sold for bondmen and bondwomen, I had held my peace, for the adversary is not worthy that the king be disturbed.


ו  כִּי אֵיכָכָה אוּכַל, וְרָאִיתִי, בָּרָעָה, אֲשֶׁר-יִמְצָא אֶת-עַמִּי; וְאֵיכָכָה אוּכַל וְרָאִיתִי, בְּאָבְדַן מוֹלַדְתִּי. 8:6 for how can I endure to see the evil that shall come unto my people? or how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?’



  1. Repeated Phrases


Traditionally, the reader pauses, allowing the congregation to also recite the text of the four verses in the Megillah which speak of Israel’s redemption: “There was a Jewish man in Shushan (Esther 2:5); And Mordechai went from before the king in royal clothing (ibid. 8:15); The Jews had illumination (ibid. 8:16); and the last verse of the Megillah, For Mordechai was deputy to the king (ibid. 10:3).” The reader then proceeds to repeat these verses since those who have their obligation fulfilled by listening to the Megillah, rather than reading it themselves must hear every word. The purpose of this custom is to intensify the joy and to keep the children from falling asleep, so that the story of the great miracle performed on Israel’s behalf during the time of Mordechai and Esther will enter their hearts.


ה  אִישׁ יְהוּדִי, הָיָה בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה; וּשְׁמוֹ מָרְדֳּכַי, בֶּן יָאִיר בֶּן-שִׁמְעִי בֶּן-קִישׁ–אִישׁ יְמִינִי. 2:5 There was a certain Jew in Shushan the castle, whose name was Mordecai the son of Jair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjamite,


טו  וּמָרְדֳּכַי יָצָא מִלִּפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ, בִּלְבוּשׁ מַלְכוּת תְּכֵלֶת וָחוּר, וַעֲטֶרֶת זָהָב גְּדוֹלָה, וְתַכְרִיךְ בּוּץ וְאַרְגָּמָן; וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן, צָהֲלָה וְשָׂמֵחָה. 8:15 And Mordecai went forth from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue and white, and with a great crown of gold, and with a robe of fine linen and purple; and the city of Shushan shouted and was glad.


טז  לַיְּהוּדִים, הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה, וְשָׂשֹׂן, וִיקָר. 8:16 The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor.


ג  כִּי מָרְדֳּכַי הַיְּהוּדִי, מִשְׁנֶה לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, וְגָדוֹל לַיְּהוּדִים, וְרָצוּי לְרֹב אֶחָיו–דֹּרֵשׁ טוֹב לְעַמּוֹ, וְדֹבֵר שָׁלוֹם לְכָל-זַרְעוֹ. 10:3 For Mordecai the Jew was next unto king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his brethren; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all his seed.


  • Variant Readings
  About 200 years ago, 2 variations crept into Ashkenaz Megillot. Bifnehem/lifnehem (9:2) and laharog/velaharog (8:11). They are written the “wrong” way and read both ways, two times, according to Ashkenaz custom. To my knowledge, Sephardim do not know of any variation in these verses. Even Ashkenazim know which is the right way; it is just a custom to read it both ways (first as written, then the correct version).



יא  אֲשֶׁר נָתַן הַמֶּלֶךְ לַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בְּכָל-עִיר-וָעִיר, לְהִקָּהֵל וְלַעֲמֹד עַל-נַפְשָׁם–לְהַשְׁמִיד וְלַהֲרֹג וּלְאַבֵּד אֶת-כָּל-חֵיל עַם וּמְדִינָה הַצָּרִים אֹתָם, טַף וְנָשִׁים; וּשְׁלָלָם, לָבוֹז. 8:11 that the king had granted the Jews that were in every city to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, and to slay, and to cause to perish, all the forces of the people and province that would assault them, their little ones and women, and to take the spoil of them for a prey,


ב  נִקְהֲלוּ הַיְּהוּדִים בְּעָרֵיהֶם, בְּכָל-מְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, לִשְׁלֹחַ יָד, בִּמְבַקְשֵׁי רָעָתָם; וְאִישׁ לֹא-עָמַד לִפְנֵיהֶם, כִּי-נָפַל פַּחְדָּם עַל-כָּל-הָעַמִּים. 9:2 the Jews gathered themselves together in their cities throughout all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus, to lay hand on such as sought their hurt; and no man could withstand them; for the fear of them was fallen upon all the peoples.


  1. King Ahasheurus’s Sleep

It is customary to read the verse: “That night the sleep of the king was disturbed” (Esther 6:1), using a different and louder melody for the cantillation because this verse marks the point where Israel’s salvation began.


א  בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא, נָדְדָה שְׁנַת הַמֶּלֶךְ; וַיֹּאמֶר, לְהָבִיא אֶת-סֵפֶר הַזִּכְרֹנוֹת דִּבְרֵי הַיָּמִים, וַיִּהְיוּ נִקְרָאִים, לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ. 6:1 On that night the king could not sleep; and he commanded to bring the book of records of the chronicles, and they were read before the king.



  1. Special Trope


ט  וַיֹּאמֶר חַרְבוֹנָה אֶחָד מִן-הַסָּרִיסִים לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ, גַּם הִנֵּה-הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה הָמָן לְמָרְדֳּכַי אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר-טוֹב עַל-הַמֶּלֶךְ עֹמֵד בְּבֵית הָמָן–גָּבֹהַּ, חֲמִשִּׁים אַמָּה; וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ, תְּלֻהוּ עָלָיו. 7:9 Then said Harbonah, one of the chamberlains that were before the king: ‘Behold also, the gallows fifty cubits high, which Haman made for Mordecai, who spoke good for the king, standeth in the house of Haman.’ And the king said: ‘Hang him thereon.’


  1. Haman’s Sons

The names of Haman’s ten sons, the phrase five hundred men which precedes them, and the word ten which follows (Ibid. 9:6-10) are traditionally read in one breath, thereby indicating that they were all killed at one time. The five hundred men mentioned indicates that they were all followers of Haman’s sons who served as their commanding officers.


ו  וּבְשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה, הָרְגוּ הַיְּהוּדִים וְאַבֵּד–חֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת,  אִישׁ.

ז  וְאֵת   פַּרְשַׁנְדָּתָא  וְאֵת

דַּלְפוֹן,  וְאֵת  אַסְפָּתָא.

ח  וְאֵת  פּוֹרָתָא  וְאֵת אֲדַלְיָא,  וְאֵת   אֲרִידָתָא.

ט  וְאֵת פַּרְמַשְׁתָּא  וְאֵת   אֲרִיסַי,  וְאֵת אֲרִידַי  וְאֵת    וַיְזָתָא.

י  עֲשֶׂרֶת  בְּנֵי הָמָן


6 And in Shushan the castle the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men.

7 And Parshandatha, and Dalphon, and Aspatha,


8 And Poratha, and Adalia, and Aridatha,

9 and Parmashta, and Arisai, and Aridai, and Vaizatha,


10 the ten sons of Haman