“Do not ignite fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath.” (Ex. 35:3)
The Torah forbids 39 different categories of activity on the Sabbath. Yet only one — lighting fire — is explicitly prohibited in the Torah. Why?
And why does the Torah qualify the prohibition of lighting fire with the phrase, “in any of your dwellings"? Is it not forbidden to start a fire in any location?
The control and use of fire is unique to humanity. It is the basis for our advances in science and innovations in technology. Even now, fuel sources for burning, coal and oil, are what power modern societies. In short, fire is a metaphor for our power and control over nature, the fruit of our God-given intelligence.
What is the central message of the Sabbath? When we refrain from working on the seventh day, we acknowledge that God is the Creator of the world.
One might think that only the pristine natural world is truly the work of God. Human technology, on the other hand, is artificial and perhaps alien to the true purpose of the universe. Therefore, the Torah specifically prohibits lighting fire on the Sabbath, emphasizing that our progress in science and technology is also part of creation. Everything is included in the ultimate design of the universe. Our advances and inventions contribute towards the goal of creation in accordance with God’s sublime wisdom.
Along with the recognition that all of our accomplishments are in essence the work of God, we must also be aware that we have tremendous power to change and improve the world. This change will be for a blessing if we are wise enough to utilize our technology within the guidelines of integrity and holiness.
This caveat leads to the second question we asked: why does the Torah limit the prohibition of lighting fire on the Sabbath to “your dwellings"? The Talmud (Shabbat 20a) explains that lighting fire is only forbidden in private dwellings, but in the Temple, it is permitted to burn offerings on the Sabbath. Why should fire be permitted in the Temple?
The holy Temple was a focal point of prophecy and Divine revelation. It was the ultimate source of enlightenment, for both the individual and the nation. The fire used in the Temple is a metaphor for our mission to improve the world through advances in science and technology. We need to internalize the message that it is up to us to develop and advance the world, until the entire universe is renewed with a new heart and soul, with understanding and harmony. Permitting the technological innovation of fire in Temple on the Sabbath indicates that God wants us to utilize our intellectual gifts to innovate and improve, in a fashion similar to God’s own creative acts.
We need to be constantly aware of our extraordinary potential when we follow the path that our Maker designated for us. At this spiritual level, we should not think that we are incapable of accomplishing new things. As the Talmud declares, “If they desire, the righteous can create worlds” (Sanhedrin 65b). When humanity attains ethical perfection, justice will then guide all of our actions, and scientific advances and inventions will draw their inspiration from the source of Divine morality, the holy Temple.
(Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 164-165. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III, p. 53)