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

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