There is an old proverb: "Kindle not a fire you cannot extinguish." Fire plays quite the role as a literary device. After all, fire has as much potential to destroy as it does to create warmth and energy. It also plays a role in this week's Torah portion. At the beginning of this week's Torah portion (Exodus 35), Moses talks about the Tabernacle, specifically how to contribute to it and how to construct. However, before beginning with those details, Moses provides a two-verse segue about the Shabbat. In it, he reminds the Jewish people about how it's forbidden to do work on the seventh day (i.e., Shabbat), and that whoever does so will be "put to death (Exodus 35:2)". He then brings up the example of not kindling any fire on Shabbat (ibid. 35:3). The only other act in the Torah that is explicitly mentioned [as prohibited for Shabbat] is gathering wood (Numbers 15:32-36). For those who observe Shabbat or are even aware of the laws governing Shabbat, there are way more than just two laws about Shabbat. There are 39 main types of acts that are prohibited, which can be divided into literally hundreds of laws. My question for today is as follows: why is it that Moses singles out the act of kindling a fire?
Before continuing, I have to preface that when referring to "work," we're not talking about going into the office for your "9-5 job on Monday to Friday". The Hebrew word for that type of work is avodah (עבודה). The word used in Exodus 35:2, melachah (מלאכה), refers to creative acts (also see Exodus 35:33). It's because of the juxtaposition between Shabbat and the Tabernacle in this verse that the Sages [in the Mishnah] interpreted melacha to mean the acts used to build the Tabernacle. Juxtaposition is a standard hermeneutical tool to interpret Torah. However, I find it to be a problematic interpretation because many "creative acts" were not included in the list, including setting the table, washing before and after eating, and cleaning up. Even if the laws surrounding Shabbat evolved in a more arbitrary fashion, let's return to the initial question: Why is the prohibition of kindling fire singled out in this passage?
One reason is, as Sforno pointed out, that fire was necessary for completing so many acts of work. In pre-modern times, fire was one of the single greatest things to help with the advancement of civilization. Nowadays, electricity plays such a role. Even if you don't buy the argument that electricity scientifically functions the same as fire does (I don't!), it certainly has as much impact in 21st-century living as fire did in pre-modern times with regards to being able to create and advance (R. Samson Raphael Hirsch), which is one of the reasons I would argue that the prohibition of turning on electrical items during Shabbat still holds. To further elucidate upon this point, as the Sfat Emet illustrates, the prohibition of fire is to remind us that by not building and creating, we can better appreciate the work we do during the other six days of the week.
Rabbi Yeshaya Halevi Horowitz, also known as the Shlach HaKodesh, gives a more figurative interpretation by saying that the fire refers to the fire of anger and disputes. Shabbat is not just about physical rest. It is about a level of moral sanctity in which we are not meant to start such fires. With Shabbat, it is about conditioning one's mind and soul to develop a certain level of inner peace. Ideally, we should not be angry ever (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De'ot, 2:3), but this holds especially true on a day where we are supposed to let go of our travails and our worries. The reason that this melachah is singled out is because Shabbat typically gives us more opportunities to interact with other people. We're not at our computers or glued to our smartphones. Whether it's going to shul or being around the Shabbat table for a meal, we have face-to-face interaction with people, which can be messy. We are meant to transcend that to build what R. Abraham Joshua Heschel called a "sanctuary in time."
These two interpretations of the verse teach us that we gain perspective on the world and how to interact with it as a result. We are not meant to just toil away and constantly work. We are not meant to be constantly in tension. Not being on the iPhone or working in front of a laptop means stopping the rat race for a day and taking the time to appreciate what's around you. And not starting arguments or disputes means we can let go and be in the moment. It means the petty or trivial is not as important as family, camaraderie, or seeking holiness in an otherwise mundane world. By not igniting fire on Shabbat, whether they may be literal, symbolic, or figurative, we can express our gratitude for what we have and what we have accomplished.