Fire, Shabbat, and Modernity

A friend recently raised a very valid point about the modern practice of Judaism that I wanted to address. The question concerns the use of electricity, artificial light, and heating on Shabbat. As my friend accurately pointed out, Shemot (Exodus) 35:3 prohibits the burning of fire on Shabbat. For the Israelites in the desert this meant no light, heat, or cooking. Today, in the spirit of the law, should we not turn off the electrical lights and devices, unplug the refrigerator, and refrain from cooking? I would like to note that I too prefer to refrain from cooking on Shabbat out of respect for tradition.

The first response I have to question is that the Israelites did not go without heat on Shabbat in the desert. If they had there would not have been any Israelites left. While the summer is woefully hot in the Sinai, Negev, and north-western Saudi Arabia it is very cold in the winter, too much so for human comfort. Moreover, the commandment concerning the burning of fire pertains to one’s dwelling not to the world in general. Israelites in the desert had fire, light, warmth and, if they felt it necessary, the ability to cook. They simply had to gather before the Mishkan (Tabernacle) as a community and share the warmth of several communal bonfires. To refrain from the use of electricity to provide heat, in climates where this can be dangerous, would also violate the Torah’s commandment that we choose life and health.
The next question is that of modernity. Several religious movements throughout history have rejected new technologies in order to maintain the “purity” of their faith. In the US today the Amish refrain from the use of technologies that would not have been available in the 1850s.
Thankfully, the ancient Israelites did not have this approach. As each new technology was introduced the ancient Israelites jumped on board as quickly as they could: from iron chariots and swords, to modern bows and arrows. It has been noted that there is no traditional form of dress associated with ancient Judaism, Jews throughout history have worn the modern clothing styles of the time. In fact, the Persians were notable for wearing felt hats at all times and Jews adopted this custom, ergo the kippah (skull cap). Before the Babylonian Exile Israelites were portrayed as wearing the same skirt that most people in Kena’an wore, see below.
The story of Adam and Eve tells of the transition from an unsettled, hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a modern “civilized” lifestyle (post on this coming soon). Naturally, men became capable of great evil and oppressed his brother. Murder, slavery, and injustice reigned on a massive scale. YHV found a people who were lowly slaves of these evil men and freed them that they could be his ambassadors and priests carrying a righteous law. A law that would allow man to progress technologically, evolve socially, and grow while constrained only by the appropriate moral and ethical boundaries. As long as we love life and defend it to the last, we can experiment with genetics, medicine, and nuclear technology. For those who do not love life, as is the case in several rogue nations today, these experiments can be extremely dangerous.
I believe YHVH wants us to progress and is okay with our adoption of modern technology and its use on Shabbat. We need to be careful only that we do not profit by our actions. Shabbat is His day, that we consecrate to remember creation and to rest from our labors. We should gather as a community, we should pray together, and we should share with each other the blessings that He has given us individually for we are His people. Everything we have, we have because He gave it to us. Remember Him, offer prayers to Him, read and discuss His laws and remember…

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