Moshe called the whole community of the Children of Israel to assemble, and
he said to them: "These are the things that HASHEM commanded to make: Six
days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall sanctity, a day of
complete rest to HASHEM; whoever performs work on it [this day] shall be put
to death. You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the
Sabbath day." (Shemos 35:1-3)
Why did the Torah single out not kindling a fire on Shabbos as the
representative of all the other Malachos of Shabbos?
Now let us pause and appreciate the necessity for an Oral Torah. Anyone
familiar with the observance of Shabbos already knows that there are 39
fundamental forbidden activities on the Holy Shabbos and yet the only one
mentioned explicitly here is not to light a fire. If we did not have an Oral
Torah then how would we know what not to do to preserve Shabbos?
This is a problem not only native to Shabbos but it is also true of every
Mitzvah in the Torah. There is not one law that can be performed in its
entirety based only on the information provided in the written text of Torah.
Let’s take a simple one that every decent person can agree upon: “Don’t
kill!” OK, as intelligent western thinkers we can have an all-night debate
about when life begins and when life ends and never come to a conclusion.
What one person would define as euthanasia another would call murder. What
one would call “family planning” another would identify as murder. The Torah
had to have had some quantifiable definition of else how can the Sanhedrin
be charged with carrying out an execution for murder if the boundaries are
The same holds true of Shabbos. Here we have the Torah spelling out clearly,
“; whoever performs work (Malacha) on it [this day] shall be put to death”.
Well, what is “Malacha”-work? Where is it spelled out clear enough to
provide a warning to one who would trample the garden of Shabbos? Can it be
capricious or vague and yet worthy of death.
Don’t’ think that no one ever tried to manage living a Torah life without
the assistance and guidance of an Oral Law. It has been attempted many times
over the millennium. Take the Karaites for example. The movement started in
Babylonia in about the 9th century, not long after the sealing of the
Talmud. The Name “Kara”-ites, comes from the term for verse, or text, as it
is read. They sought to dispute the adherents to the Oral Torah and
therefore they attempted to hold tenaciously to the written Torah as it is
spelled out and without any assistance from the Talmud.
Certainly their intentions, deep down, were to make life easy and to relieve
themselves from the burden of Hallacha. This provided a universe of
leniencies and no doubt it was attractive to many, but for how long? Six
days! When it came to Shabbos they found themselves in a stuck place. While
Torah Law allows a person to set up a guarded fire prior to Shabbos and to
light Shabbos candles before the onset of Shabbos, the Karaites had to
remain loyal to the one forbidden act mentioned explicitly in the text. It
is actually a Rabbinical requirement for a Jewish household to have candles
lit for the Shabbos. It is a necessary to have delicacies and even hot food,
namely cholent. The Prophet calls the Shabbos, “delight”-(Oneg) and it is!
The Karaite Shabbos was not so pleasurable. They needed to sit in the dark
and in the cold. The Talmud tells us that a blind man has less pleasure from
his food. It seems that psychologically, a great deal of the joy of eating
is in the anticipation, hence the great culinary emphasis on colorful
presentations. It must not be so much fun to not be able to see what you are
eating or what might be crawling on what you are eating at night. Oy!
It is stated, “So the Children of Israel should observe the Shabbos, to make
the Shabbos throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant.”
(Shemos 31:16) How is it to remain an everlasting covenant from generation
to generation in the cold and the dark? That just might be one reason the
Torah mentioned only “fire” as a forbidden act, to extinguish those who
would lose the secret of Shabbos delight!