Don’t Play with Fire – at Least Not Always by Rabbi Raphi Mandelstam


In the beginning of Parashat VaYakheil (Shemot 35:1), we are told of what must have been quite an exciting scene. It’s the day after Yom Kippur (Rashi ad loc. s.v. VaYakheil Moshe), Moshe has descended from Har Sinai, and the Cheit HaEigel drama is finally over; we are now ready to return to the building of the Mishkan. However, for some reason, when Moshe Rabbeinu gathers the people, instead of jumping into the Mishkan details, he begins with the commandment to not violate Shabbat (Shemot 35:2-3). Why does Moshe teach us about Shabbat here? After all, we’ve already learned about Shabbat several times in Sefer Shemot?

Whenever a Mitzvah is repeated in the Torah, there are usually two helpful clues as to why: either the repetition adds new laws or details, or the repetition is in a different context which adds a new dimension of understanding. Here, the prohibition against doing Melachah on Shabbat is followed by the specific prohibition against Hav’arah, lighting a fire on Shabbat: “Lo Teva’aru Eish BeChol Moshevoteichem BeYom HaShabbat,” “You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on Shabbat” (35:3). Why is this Melachah singled out? Is it not included in the overall category of Melachah which was already mentioned?

There are many Halachic explanations offered for this question. For example, there is a debate between Rebbi Natan and Rebbi Yossi as to whether Hav’arah is treated less severely than the other Melachot (Talmud Bavli Mesechet Shabbat 70a). Another answer, offered by Ramban (Shemot 35:3 s.v. Lo Teva’aru Eish BeChol Moshevoteichem BeYom HaShabbat), is that unlike Yom Tov, in which Hav’arah is allowed for Ochel Nefesh, Hav’arah is forbidden on Shabbat in all cases. Either way, we still need to explain why the Torah would wait until here to make these points, considering that it could have done so earlier.

Our answer begins by noting another strange aspect of the prohibition against Hav’arah. Unlike the general prohibition against doing Melachah on Shabbat, the Torah states that kindling a flame cannot be done “BeChol Moshevoteichem,” “in all of your dwellings” (Shemot 35:3). What does this phrase come to teach us? Are there places in which we can light a fire on Shabbat?!

Chizkuni (ad loc. s.v. Lo Teva’aru Eish) explains that the phrase “BeChol Moshevoteichem” teaches that while the prohibition of Hav’arah exists in our communities, it does not exist in the Mishkan in the context of performing the Avodah. In other words, the phrase “BeChol Moshevoteichem” appears in our Pasuk simply to contrast the Mishkan with all other places. This could not have been stated before, since the concept of the Mishkan was not yet introduced to Bnei Yisrael. With the Chizkuni’s Halachic contrast of the Mishkan and our dwellings in terms of the prohibition of Hav’arah, a very deep message emerges, especially when we remember that these Pesukim appear right after the Cheit HaEigel.

Many Meforashim (such as Ramban and the Kuzari) explain that the motivation behind the Cheit HaEigel was not to replace Hashem, but rather to replace Moshe. Until now, Bnei Yisrael had viewed Moshe as more than just a leader – he was an intermediary between them and Hashem. When the people thought Moshe was gone, they became desperate to find an alternative way of serving Hashem, for they felt that direct communication with Hashem was beyond them, and they therefore needed a tangible and physical way of connecting with Him. As much as those intentions seem proper, the obvious problem is that the Torah explicitly forbids the creation of such images, regardless of the intentions. And, as the Beit HaLeivi explains, the message we all need to learn from the Cheit HaEigel is that despite our intentions, the service of Hashem must be done on His terms, not ours.

I think that this is precisely the message that Lo Teva’aru Eish BeChol Moshevoteichem” is meant to teach us, especially as it comes right after the Cheit HaEigel. While we may have a genuine passion and desire for spirituality, as symbolized by fire, the Torah tells us that we can’t light that fire ““BeChol Moshevoteichem,” in any place or way which we desire. Rather, that fire and passion needs to be channeled through the Mishkan, using its light to guide us. And, just as the Aron HaKodesh is at its center, Torah needs to be at the heart and center of our lives, guiding our decisions,  making us unlike the people who sinned by the Cheit HaEigel who relied solely on themselves. While in no way should we as a people lose our fire and passion to connect with Hashem, we must remember that what we do is on His terms.

Rebuilding from Cheit HaEigel by Zachary Ottenstein

Machatzit HaShekel by Binyamin Jachter