Get Email Updates!

Reconstructing the Prohibitions of Shabbat

In this week's parashah, Vayakhel, as we near the conclusion of Shemot (which will take place next Shabbat), we read of Moses relaying God's instructions to the people concerning the building of the Mishkan/Mikdash (Tabernacle). In the earlier part of Shemot God gives Moses detailed instructions concerning the Mishkan/Mikdash which are followed by the commandment to observe Shabbat as a day of rest. This is followed by the incident of the Golden Calf, which is then followed in Vayakhel by a reminder to observe Shabbat, including the prohibition against kindling fire on Shabbat. Moses then transmits the instructions concerning the building of the Mishkan/Mikdash to the people and to Bezalel, the artisan entrusted with the actual construction.

Rashi (12th c. France) comments on the reminder that after six days of working we are required to rest on Shabbat by stating that God "prefaced the instructions about the Mishkan work with the warning about Shabbat, to tell them that the Mishkan does not supercede Shabbat." As Aviva Zornberg then states in her analysis (The Particulars of Rapture, p. 462) "an intimate tension is set up between Shabbat and the Mishkan: before even beginning to speak of the building work, it is necessary to articulate a kind of 'anti-Mishkan' principle. One might indeed have thought that the Mishkan does displace Shabbat, that that the crafts that go to create the holy space would continue through the weekly day of sacred [or holy] time. Therefore Moses speaks of Shabbat before the Mishkan work, to counteract perhaps a natural hypothesis." Furthermore, Zornberg reminds her readers that the beginning of the verses concerning the building of the Mishkan begin with the words 'eileh ha-devarim' (these are the things) the 39 letters of this phrase are viewed by the Sages as pointing to the 39 categories of work involved in the building of the Mishkan which then become the 39 categories of work forbidden on Shabbat.

The Talmud teaches that acts of creation are forbidden on Shabbat, not just destructive acts. For just as God ceased creation on Shabbat in order to enjoy the beauty of the world, so too are we meant to simply revel in God's created world each Shabbat. It would seem, according to Zornberg and others, that the work of the Mishkan, which was also holy, became such an obsession on the part of the people that perhaps God was worried that the people would not cease this creative work on Shabbat. Though it may seem extreme to threaten death for those who desecrate the Shabbat, as the Torah does time and again, perhaps it was necessary in order to emphasize the importance of Shabbat and that it supercedes all other holy activities of creation - no matter how important they might seem. Even the ultimate in holy work, the building of the Mishkan (a holy place/space), is suspended in order to observe holy time, Shabbat.

In the prohibition against work found in Vayakhel we also find the new concept of kindling fire on Shabbat. Earlier in Shemot the concept of Shabbat was simply explained as a reminder that God ceased work and was refreshed on Shabbat. Now we read that kindling fire is forbidden. Though there are 39 categories of work forbidden on Shabbat the remaining categories are taken from the instructions concerning the Mishkan. However, here we have the explicit mention of fire. And yet, if only creative work is forbidden, as the Talmud teaches, then why is fire - which can be purely destructive - explicitly forbidden at this point?

But fire is both destructive and creative simultaneously. In reality it is impossible for fire to be purely one or the other. When destroying its fuel it provides warmth and when lit for cooking, heating or other "creative" purposes it must in fact destroy in order to provide the needed heat. Fire is needed for much of the activity involved in the building of the mishkan. In fact, it would be impossible to build the Mishkan as described in the Torah without fire. And so the other forms of forbidden work that our tradition proscribes in rabbinic texts are hinted at in this one simple prohibition.

Beyond that Zornberg connects fire with the problem of excess that is found in the Shemot narrative. When the people are told to bring their gold to build the Calf, tradition tells us that they bring too much and Aaron must tell them to stop. Similarly, the Torah tells us that when the people are told to bring gifts for the building of the Mishkan (including a great deal of gold) they bring an excessive amount as well and Moses commands them to stop.

As we learned in past weeks, the Sages viewed the gold of the Mishkan as atonement for the gold of the Calf. In the incident of the Calf Aaron tells Moses that he threw the gold into the fire and "out came this calf!" This almost comical line points to the power of fire to transform. It is fire that also transforms the solid gold of the people's gifts in to the gold to be used in the Mishkan. And so it is fire that represents the ultimate creative power with which humanity is imbued - as well as the ultimate destructive power.

It might seem to us today that many of the prohibitions of Shabbat are seemingly trite and even silly. However, if one realizes that the point is not to prevent us from doing what we would consider work (i.e., heavy lifting) but rather to prevent us from performing even the most simple acts of creation (such as writing) it makes more sense.

But as someone who does write, use electricity, and light fire on Shabbat I can still find meaning in the symbolism of the specific prohibition in this week's parashah. For I believe that the essence of the prohibition against kindling flames is meant not only to teach us not to involve ourselves in creative acts on Shabbat, but to remember how our creative and destructive abilities are inextricably linked. It is human excess and indulgence, as represented by the fire that mysteriously produced a calf out of molten gold as if by magic, that reminds us of this connection. By not lighting fire for a day, by not allowing our own inner creative passions to be active, we can gain a new perspective on the world and our relation to it. By doing this we can then rekindle our flames, as we do at Havdalah, the ceremony that ends Shabbat, and try to use them as creatively as possible during the coming six days of work.

As non-Orthodox Jews what we must do is determine what are the flames within us that we need to extinguish during Shabbat so that we can then use them as creatively and productively during the other days of the week. In that way I believe we are living up to the spirit of Shabbat and allowing ourselves to create a day of holy time so that we can then continue the work of creating holy places and holy space the remainder of the week.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

This is the archival site for It is no longer updated.

For the new site, please visit