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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Absence of Fire

by Rabbi Ezra Seligsohn (Posted on February 24, 2022)
Topics: Sefer Shemot, Torah, Vayakhel

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Shabbat shalom. I wanted to talk with you this week about fire.

In the beginning of this week’s parsha, Moshe gathers the people and teaches them about Shabbat. “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day, you shall rest” (Ex. 35:2). What is unique in this week’s parsha is that we have the introduction of one of the primary categories of work, lighting a fire, that’s prohibited on Shabbat. The pasuk states “Lo teva’aru esh bechol moshvoteichem beyom hashabbat”, You shall not kindle any fire in all of your dwellings on the day of Shabbat (Ex. 35:3). The Rabbis offer many explanations as to what is unique about this mitzvah that the action of lighting needs to be singled out amongst the types of work that one is supposed to refrain from on Shabbat. I wanted to pick up on one literary connection that I think points towards the nature of Shabbat.

This phrase of “Lo tevaaru esh”, you shall not kindle a fire, has the roots of boer and esh, of lighting and fire. These roots only show up one other time before this in the Torah. When Moshe arrives on the mountaintop with the burning bush, at the very beginning of his journey, the Torah says “Vehineh hasneh boer baesh vehasneh einenu ucal”, that this bush was burning but it was not being consumed (Ex. 3:2).

We realize that this moment where Moshe comes face-to-face with God for the first time and begins his conversation with God, manifests in this bush that is boer baesh. A bush that is being kindled with fire. Fire from that point on comes to signify God’s presence. The fire that leads them in the desert, that protects them from the Egyptians. The fire on the top of Har Sinai. It all harkens back to this original bush that is boer baesh.

When the Torah says you may not use fire on Shabbat, it is also telling us that you don’t need fire to feel the presence of God. So much of Sefer Shemot is about the Jewish people experiencing God as fire. God as the destructor, the punisher of Egypt. God as the fiery flame above Har Sinai. 

The meaning of this halakha, of this is law, is saying that you can have Shabbat, you can have God even without that fire and intensely felt heat, warmth, and presence that’s evoked by fire. You can still have a Shabbat, you can still have a feeling and a connection with the Divine, but it’s not one that comes through that intense presence. Rather it’s one that comes through absence, through resting, through stepping back, through a lack of work, a lack of fire.

It’s this powerful metaphor to say that on the Shabbat, we’re not going to have fire. We’re not going to be dependent on God’s explicit presence. We are going to seek presence through absence. We will find the gaps, the spaces where there is no fire, no productivity, no intensity, and say yes, God is here too. This is our Shabbat.