At the very beginning of Vayakhel, in the 2nd verse of chapter 35 we read:
Sheishet yamim tei’aseh melacha u’vayom hash’vi’ih yi’yeh lachem kodesh Shabbat Shabbaton la’Adonai … On six days, work may be done, but the seventh day shall be holy for you, a day of complete rest for God …
Shabbat is an integral part of our lives as Jews. It is the only ritual that is mentioned in the Ten Commandments, and it is mentioned more often in the Torah than any other mitzvah. Shabbat is a showcase for core Jewish values. It has a special place in our lives. After all, it occurs every week, whilst virtually every other holiday occurs just once a year. Shabbat is considered to be the most important day in the Jewish calendar, even more important than Yom Kippur.
The punishment for desecrating Yom Kippur is chareit (excommunication). As we read further on in the verse mentioned above, the punishment for desecrating Shabbat is death.
If we look at Shabbat from the point of view of observance and tradition, we see that the Shabbat has two tractates of Talmud (Shabbat and Eruvin) dedicated to it, as well as just under 200 chapters in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law. However, it is the next verse (verse 3) that can be viewed as one of the greatest bases for debate about Shabbat, possibly more than any of the above sources. It reads; “Lo-t’va’aru aish b’chol moshvoteichem b’yom haShabbat.” (You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on Shabbat).
This verse, which is then followed by all the details pertaining to the Mishkan, is one of the foundations used for the 39 categories of work prohibited on Shabbat, developed by the Sages. Included in these laws, are the prohibition against kindling or extinguishing a fire (as explicitly mentioned in this week’s parasha), and subsequently cooking and baking as a category, even if they don’t require fire, or even if the fire was lit before Shabbat. Very rigid, and very prescriptive.
However, not every commentator is in agreement with the extreme rigidity and lack of ability to interpret this verse.
Regarding this commentary in the Stone edition of the Tanach says the following; “The Oral Law makes clear that only the creation of a fire and such use of it as cooking and baking are forbidden, but there is no prohibition against enjoying its light and heat. Deviant sects that denied the teachings of the Sages misinterpreted this passage, so they would sit in the dark throughout the Sabbath, just as they sat in spiritual darkness all their lives.”
Perhaps what this commentary is saying is that it is unnatural for us to ignore the fire, as a natural source of light and warmth, and that those who do so, are depriving themselves of enjoying their Shabbat experience. They chose to focus on the negative and restrict themselves.
As Jews living in the 21st Century CE, we have the ability and authority to provide our own interpretation on these kinds of debates, to enhance our experience of Shabbat through the laws and commentaries provided to us. Just like Irving Stone has done in his commentary, we too should look to these laws as ways of enhancing our Shabbat experience in ways that are special to us. The Torah is a living document, it is up to us to allow it to enliven our world.