Gen. 24:48 — ואברך את יהוה אלהי אברהם אשר הנחני בדרך אמת
Deut. 6:6-7 — והיו הדברים האלה אשר אנכי מצוך היום על לבבך ודברת בם בלכתך בדרך
Acts 24:14 — אני מודה כי אני בדרך ההיא אשר יקבוה מפלגה בה אני עובד את אלהי אבותינו וכי אני מאמין בכל הכתוב בתורה ובנביאים



Shabbat, fire, and modernity

לֹא־תְבַעֲר֣וּ אֵ֔שׁ בְּכֹ֖ל מֹשְׁבֹֽתֵיכֶ֑ם בְּי֖וֹם הַשַּׁבָּֽת׃
שמות לה, ג

Do not burn fire in all your dwellings on the Sabbath day.
Exodus 35:3

What does this commandment mean?

One of the problems we face in trying to keep the commandments of Torah is that most people (anywhere in the world) are not interested in doing so. That makes things harder, since society is not set up to enable observance of the commandments. Rather, we have to struggle against the stream.

Another problem is that even within the minority that does claim to follow Torah, most people do not follow Torah itself but rather an accumulation of centuries of tradition and rabbinic (or other) rulings. These traditions frequently modify, transform, distort, or set aside the actual commandments of Torah. So even those who say they are following Torah are usually not following what it actually says, but something else altogether.

So what about those of us who want to keep Torah in accordance with the actual meaning of the commandments and within our modern life setting? We have to consider each commandment afresh and seek to discern its applicability today. This same question is faced in every age.

With regard to (not) burning a fire on shabbat, the commandment itself sounds pretty clear. However, a number of questions do arise. Here are some of them:

- Does this mean not to start a fire on shabbat, or not to have a fire burning at all?

- What about those who live in cold climates? (One possible answer to this question is that Torah was given as national law for Eretz Yisrael.)

- By saying "in all your dwellings" (בכל משבתיכם), does the mitzvah leave open the possibility of burning a shabbat fire "outside" one's dwelling? E.g., a bonfire in the park? a barbecue in the back yard? (Note that the fire on the altar had to be kept burning by the priests even on shabbat. See Lev. 6:8-13 / ויקרא ו‫,‬ א‫-‬ו . Cf. Maty. 12:5.)

- What is 'fire', beyond the obvious? Is an internal combustion engine (such as in an automobile) an example of fire? The words we use to describe it suggest that it is. But should we adopt a modern scientific definition of 'burning' or 'combustion' -- "the sequence of exothermic chemical reactions between a fuel and an oxidant accompanied by the production of heat and conversion of chemical species," according to Wikipedia -- when seeking to apply ancient Torah to our lives? Or should we try to think only in terms of what 'fire' (i.e., אש) would have meant to Israelis 3,000 years ago?

- By considering such questions and (hopefully) settling on a general approach, are we creating "our own halacha" just like the rabbis have done? Does it make a difference if one says, "This is my opinion, but you may have a different understanding -- or your time/place may require a different observance"? One crucial aspect of rabbinic halacha is that it is considered to be authoritative. In other words, you and I are supposedly obligated to follow what the council of rabbis has decided. But if one does not adopt this attitude, instead according freedom and discretion to all, is that a better solution?

I found a couple places on the web arguing that Exod. 35:3 was only talking about an "industrial fire" -- and thus fires for cooking, warmth, etc. would be ok on shabbat. However, I personally can't see how that interpretation stems from the text.

I know there are various opinions on the shabbat & fire commandment even among the contributors to this blog! I'd be interested to hear your views.

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