Vayakhel 5782 – What is the Intent

By: Alan Bach

Parasha Vayakhel is almost a word-by-word repetition found earlier in the book of Shmot of how to build the Tabernacle. Rather than rehash what others have spoken about in the past several weeks, today I will focus on the first couple of verses of the parasha. G-d commands the Israelites to keep the Shabbat, keep it holy, and if you do work on the Sabbath the punishment is death. Show up next week for a more detailed discussion on the fourth commandment in Larry’s, Ten Commandments class. This verse is followed by a specific callout to not create fire on the Sabbath. This parashah includes thirty-nine elements of work required to build the Tabernacle. Rashi explains the specific prohibition against fire emphasizes that every act of work is separate and should not be lumped together as a whole.

How are we to interpret this prohibition of fire on Shabbat in modern times including cooking? If you extend the creation of fire to driving a car on Shabbat, the argument is made that a combustible engine sparks a flame on each cycle of the engine. For those aligned with and prescribe to the rulings of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conversative rabbinic authority, it is permissible to drive to Shul on Shabbat. This ruling came about in the 1950’s when the rabbis issued the t’shuvah that sparking a car engine is different from kindling a fire for the purpose of warmth and cooking. It is not my intent to relitigate this seventy-year-old ruling, but I do believe this ruling is like other rulings throughout our history breaking with traditional halacha not only by the Conservative movement, but by the mainstream Orthodox movement.

My favorite example is the Eruv. Many of you are aware that our Kehillah is in the Far North Dallas eruv, the structure that allows one to carry in public on Shabbat. It is considered work to carry any object outside the home. Constructing a wall out of a wire around a large area symbolically sets it apart as a private domain. Pardon my cynicism, but I refer to this rabbinic ruling on the eruv and the newer ruling on driving as laws of convenience.

The concept of an eruv is simple. A private domain has historically been defined as a walled off area. It is permissible to carry within the confines of a private area such as a home or a walled off community. The rules of the eruv were established during the Mishna Period in Roman Palestine. As the Jewish community grew outside the established walls, it became necessary for those outside the primary communal area to partake in Shabbat related activities with others residing within the walled-off area. As the Jewish community grew and Jews moved to new areas in Babylonia and Eastern European countries, the rabbinic authorities expanded the definition of the eruv. The creation of these halakhic neighborhoods was established to allow people living within the larger community to share food with one another on Shabbat. The concept of “Oneg Shabbat” or to enjoy Shabbat was the basis for these new rules.

Throughout history the rabbis have had to make adaptations or form new rules of halakha to account for changes in the community or to society as a whole. So why is it not permissible to turn on the oven to cook food on Shabbat rather than eat a cold or warm Shabbat meal? Certainly, allowing one to cook and enjoy hot food on Shabbat would make the day much more enjoyable. The ruling is not a work-around to the use of fire on Shabbat, but starting a car engine does not complete the creation of a material item such as cooked food. These acts of completion all relate back to the construction of the Tabernacle. There are thirty-nine acts of malachot, or work, needed to complete the construction of the Tabernacle which define work which is not permitted on Shabbat.

We are commanded to enjoy Shabbat. We set aside Shabbat as a set time to behave differently than the other six days of the week. Shabbat is a time for rest, relaxation, and enjoyment – a time to separate ourselves from our day-to-day tasks. Each of us have our individual level of observance. I believe the rabbinic authorities throughout our history have always considered the community as a priority. The Talmudic rabbis justified this eruv loophole because it allows Jews to come together as a community. The Conservative rabbis allowed the use of a car on Shabbat to allow those who live too far to walk to shul to participate in the Shul community in.

G-d commanded the Israelites to build the Tabernacle, a portable sanctuary and provided extensive details on the materials and methods of construction. Since G-d is everywhere, was it necessary to have a physical location to worship G-d from? Was it necessary to later construct the temple as a permanent structure? Is it necessary to have shuls and other places of worship today? Yes, it was and is still necessary to have these physical structures as a place set aside to connect to G-d. Throughout our history, it has been important to establish a physical location where we can come together as a community. The rules on an eruv and the rules of driving a car on Shabbat are necessary because experiencing the enjoyment of Shabbat requires that we physically be together as a community.

Shabbat Shalom

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