Rabbi Andrew Goldstein – 9 March 2018
According to Jackie Mason, the Jewish comedian, Jews are hopeless at DIY and make poor handymen. They need an electrician to change a lightbulb! But nowadays some Jews employ incredible ingenuity to get round an electrical problem posed by the third verse on Exodus 35 “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.” To me great hypocrisy has always been seen in circumventing this negative mitzvah. In the old days it was a “shabbos goy”, a non-Jew, employed to come into a Jewish home on a Shabbat to put coal on the fire to keep it going… or to light or switch on the lights when it grew dark. Even though the Ten Commandments said that ones servants should rest as well as you on the Sabbath.
Then timers were invented so you could preset the time you wanted your electric lights to go on and off. Central heating took the place of open fires so solving that problem. At first lightbulbs could be taken out of the fridge on Friday afternoon lest, on opening the door on Saturday, the light came on. Now I believe there are fridges with inbuilt timers that know when it is Shabbat. A Shabbat observant fridge, incredible!
The previous verse in Exodus 35 stresses the need to keep the Shabbat by complete cessation of work and: “whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.” My own interpretation of the law about not making a fire on Shabbat was that in ancient times keeping a fire going did entail hard work, collecting and preparing the dry sticks and logs needed constant effort. But death? Well the Torah does detail a case where this was carried out for just that crime in Numbers 15:32f, a man found collecting sticks on Shabbat. Fortunately the ancient rabbis soon made it impossible to carry out such a punishment or how many Sabbath breaking Jews though the ages would have met the fate of this unfortunate man.
As Liberal Jews we are not bothered by the literal meaning of this commandment, but we might want to ponder on a couple of aspects suggested by it. Another justification of not lighting fires on Shabbat is that the day recalls God resting on the seventh day from the work of creation. By lighting a fire we create heat out of substance and you could say, we undo the work of creation burning coal to make heat either in our grates or in a distant power station. Of course increasingly our society tries to use renewable energy, perhaps we might be more careful with the light and power we do use on Shabbat than on other days, though hopefully we do our best to save the environment.
A second though comes from commentator by J.Eybeschutz on the phrase “shall be put to death”. He said, those who work on the Shabbat and treat it like any other day lose their soul, diminish their spiritual life. It is no longer the fridge light that should bother us, but we might think about the way we use our mobile phones and computers, the way we increasingly make no difference between the seventh day and the rest of the week.
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