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Ex. 35:2-3   “For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy day, ba sabbath of complete rest to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. “You shall not kindle a fire in any of your dwellings on the sabbath day.”

When I read this, I understand no fire to mean Israel were to be without heating and without cooking on the sabbath. Is that correct?

Perhaps I am mis-reading it, i.e. perhaps having no fire was meant to be no fire with relation to doing work, rather than cooking, but I guess that is a stretch?

There are all sorts of interesting side questions to this, such as what would early Israel have eaten on Sabbath days? but my question primarily relates to the literal meaning of verses 2-3.

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Kindling fire is only mentioned here in Ex 35 it is not mentioned in Exodus 20 probably because Exodus is more general. Elsewhere in the Bible certain types of work are specified:

The rabbis of the talmudic period formulated the rules governing the Sabbath in systematic fashion. They were guided by the close proximity in the Torah of the prohibition of work on the Sabbath and the instructions for building the Tabernacle.

Exod. 35:2–36:7; cf. 31:1–17; Lev. 19:30; 26:2. Shabbat. 49b.

in the Mishnah Shabbat 7:2 we see acts of work

The principal acts of labor (prohibited on the Sabbath) are forty less one—viz.: Sowing, ploughing, reaping, binding into sheaves, threshing, winnowing, fruit-cleaning, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, wool-shearing, bleaching, combing, dyeing, spinning, warping, making two spindle-trees, weaving two threads, separating two threads (in the warp), tying a knot, untying a knot, sewing on with two stitches, tearing in order to sew together with two stitches, hunting deer, slaughtering the same, skinning them, salting them, preparing the hide, scraping the hair off, cutting it, writing two (single) letters (characters), erasing in order to write two letters, building, demolishing (in order to rebuild), kindling, extinguishing (fire), hammering, transferring from one place into another. These are the principal acts of labor—forty less one.

baking is cooking here and includes "boiling, frying, baking and roasting" (Shulchan Aruch 318:7.)

Interesting thing is that it says not to kindle on Sabbath but it seems that if you kindle fire before Sabbath and don't refuel it you can still use that fire that's where lighting candles before Sabbath came from.

Even though cooking boiling, roasting, frying and baking are prohibited on Shabbat, and we may not kindle or extinguish a flame, whether for cooking or any other purpose, there are permissible ways to serve warm food on Sabbath.

one of the oldest interpretations of these verse i found is quite good and gives you general idea whats going on

Ye Shall Kindle No Fire, etc. Since it says: “In plowing time and in harvest thou shalt rest” (Ex. 34:21), which means: Refrain from plowing in the harvest time, that is, that one must refrain from plowing in the sixth year for the sabbatical year, I only know that already on the sixth year one must rest from work which is done for the sabbatical year. But one might think that in like manner a person should rest on Friday from work done for the Sabbath. And the following argument might be advanced: The sabbatical year is observed in the name of God, and the Sabbath day is also observed in the name of God. Now, since you have proved that one must rest during the sixth year from work for the seventh, it follows also that one should rest on Friday from work for the Sabbath. And furthermore, by using the method of kal vaḥomer one could reason: If in the case of the sabbatical year, for the disregard of which one does not incur the penalty of extinction or of death at the hands of the human court, one must begin already on the sixth year to rest from work for the seventh, it is but logical that in the case of the Sabbath, for the disregard of which one incurs the penalty of extinction or of death at the hands of the human court, one should already on Friday rest from work done for the Sabbath. In other words, or to be specific,6 one should not be permitted on Friday to light a candle, or to put away things to be kept warm, or to make a fire, for the Sabbath. Therefore Scripture says: “Ye shall kindle no fire in your dwelling-places on the sabbath day.” On the sabbath day itself you may not kindle a fire, but you may on Friday kindle a fire for the Sabbath.

Another Interpretation: Ye Shall Kindle No Fire in Your Dwelling-Place on the Sabbath Day. Since it is said: “Fire shall be kept burning upon the altar continually” (Lev. 6:6), I understand this to mean both on week-days and on the Sabbath. And how am I to maintain: “Everyone that profaneth it shall surely be put to death” (Ex. 31:14)? By applying it to all other works except the arrangement for the fire on the altar. But it could be argued that it applies also to the arrangement for the fire on the altar. And how am I to maintain: “It shall not go out” (Lev. 6:6)? On all other days except the Sabbath. Scripture therefore says: “Ye shall kindle no fire in your dwelling-places.” In your dwelling-places you may not kindle a fire, but you may kindle it in the Sanctuary. Said one of the disciples of R. Ishmael: Behold it says: Ye Shall Kindle No Fire, etc. Why is this said? Because it says: “And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death,” etc. (Deut. 21:22–23). I might understand that this applies both to week-days and to the Sabbath. And how am I to maintain: “Everyone that profaneth it shall surely be put to death” (Ex. 31:14)? By applying it to all other cases of death except that decreed by the court. Perhaps it is not so, but it applies even to deaths decreed by court? And I am to interpret: “And thou hang him on a tree,” to mean only on all other days but the Sabbath? Perhaps however it means even on the Sabbath? Therefore Scripture says: “Ye shall kindle no fire,” etc. And you reason: Burning was included in the general category of work prohibited on the Sabbath and it has been singled out for special mention to teach that just as in the case of “burning,” specifically mentioned, which is one of the modes of death decreed by the court, the Sabbath laws are not to be superseded, so also in the case of all the other modes of death decreed by the court, the Sabbath laws are not to be superseded.

R. Jonathan says: Ye Shall Kindle No Fire. Why is this said? Since it says: “And Moses gathered,” etc. (Ex. 35:1), I might understand that one can become guilty only by transgressing all the laws against the thirty-nine categories of work prohibited on the Sabbath. But Scripture says: “In plowing time and in harvest thou shalt rest”9 (Ex. 34:21). But I might still say that one becomes guilty only by transgressing at least two laws, but by transgressing less than two one is not guilty. Therefore it says: “Ye shall not kindle any fire.” And you reason: “Kindling” has been included in the general category of work prohibited on the Sabbath. And it has been singled out for special mention merely to teach: Just as in the case of the specifically mentioned kindling, which is one of the thirty-nine categories of prohibited work, one becomes guilty by doing it by itself, so also in the case of all the other thirty-nine categories of work it is but logical that one should become guilty by doing each one of them by itself. R. Nathan says: Ye Shall Kindle No Fire, etc. Why is this said? Because it says: “And Moses gathered the whole congregation of Israel,” etc. I might understand this to mean that one should not be allowed even on Friday to light a candle, or to put away the things to be kept warm, or to make a fire, for the Sabbath. Therefore it says: “Ye shall kindle no fire in your dwelling-places on the sabbath day.”11 Only on the Sabbath day you shall not kindle any fire. You may however kindle a fire on the day of a festival.

Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael

Of course, all Sabbath prohibitions are suspended when human life is deemed to be in danger (pikkuaḥ nefesh)—in such a situation it is a religious duty to violate them if that is what is required to save a life.(Yoma 85a–b.)

This principle is grounded in

Leviticus 18:5: “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live; I am the Lord.”

On the Sabbath, see N. A, Barack, A History of the Sabbath (New York: Jonathan David, 1965); N. E. Andreason, The Old Testament Sabbath: A Tradition-Historical Approach (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1972); M. Tsevat, “The Basic Meaning of the Sabbath,” ZAW 84 (1972):> 447–459; A. Toeg, “Genesis I and the Sabbath” (Hebrew), Betb Mikra 50 (1972): 288–296; W. M. Weinfeld, “Sabbath, Temple Building, and the Enthronement of God” (Hebrew), Betb Mikra 69 (1977): 188–193; W. Hallo, “New Moons and Sabbaths,” HUCA 48 (1977): 1–18; J. Tigay, “Notes on the Development of the Jewish Week,” Eretz-Israel 14 (1978): 111*–121*.

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Exodus 35:3 should be properly translated "thou shall not eradicate fire", not "thou shall not burn/kindle fire" as Jewish tradition says. This is because verb "to burn" in the verse is in intensive form (piel) which is translated throughout the Torah as "eradicate"(Deut 21:9). Obviously God wants us not to eradicate fire on Shabbat so we can be comfortable and rest, which is impossible to do if you do not burn/kindle fire in traditional interpretation. Jews have been misinterpreting this verse for a very long time. Perhaps since Nehemiah. There are other issues with traditional Shabbat as well.

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    You're suggesting, I think, that it's better taken as the homonymous root to the one that's normally understood. Yes? But of course בער "to burn" (--> "to kindle") does also occur in the piel (e.g. Lev 6:5[EVV 12], Neh 10:35[34], Eze 21[20]:4[48], etc.). – Susan Jan 28 '16 at 9:39
  • @Susan Yes. Also, Leviticus 6:5 should be qal, not piel. Its a mistake imho. I do not mix Torah and NK because Hebrew is different. – Aleksandr Sigalov Jan 28 '16 at 9:45
  • I'm not quite following you on Lev 6:5. Just to settle my curiosity, could you tell me how you translate ובער עָלֶיהָ הַכֹּהֵן עֵצִים ? To me there are too many nouns to make sense of it as qal, at least in the (intransitive) sense that the qal of this verb takes elsewhere. Unless you're diving the clauses differently, but I can't get that to work either. – Susan Jan 28 '16 at 10:03
  • @Susan "and he burns on her the priest woods". Qal means "to burn", hiphil means "to graze down/to consume" and piel "eradicate". – Aleksandr Sigalov Jan 28 '16 at 10:09
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    @Susan I translated literally. Should be "and shall burn the priest on it wood". Not sure what you are asking... – Aleksandr Sigalov Jan 28 '16 at 10:36
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Since we already have the Rabbi's POV in the answer above, I will answer using a more literal hermeneutic:

BDB lists the verb as [בָּעַר] burn, consume (בְּעַר burn; seek out, collect, glean; this apparently earlier meaning (comparison to Arabic form)

Ex. 22:5 shows this usage: "If a man shall cause a field or vineyard to be eaten..." יַבְעֶר here means, "caused to be consumed" and it refers to an animal devouring grass, much life a fire devours (licks up) wood.

The connection of the verb to 'collecting' must also be addressed here. Clearly, wood must be 'collected' for a fire. Collecting sticks is the only Sabbath breaking we see punished by death in the Scripture (Num. 15). We might read, 'you shall not collect [wood] into the fire.' Double meanings are common in Hebrew. Therefore, the 'gleaning' of wood to be thrown in the fire, and the act of burning it, are understood under one word. It is not then the presence of fire that is a problem, but gathering up kindling to feed one.

This begs the question: if wood is already there next to a fire, may we feed the fire. The logical answer is no. That would still be gathering up wood.

This solves a lot of problems. Lighting a candle or a lighter therefore shouldn't be a problem.

What about kindling wood that has already been gathered before Sabbath? If we light it, are we 'causing [it] to be consumed' and doing work? Few today would say that throwing a match into some kindling to generate a fire is work, but creating a spark using flint or another material wasn't always simple. It often involved a great deal of work, specifically blowing the fire/smoldering wood to feed it oxygen and make the fire grow. Therefore we can derive a lesson from this. If we have to do anything to 'feed the flames' besides lighting it, we are breaking this commandment.

This opens up a lot of practical and legal uses of fire on the sabbath. For instance, even lighting a candle on the sabbath with a lighter would be ok, because it is a candle is a self-feeding device (we are not working to feed it). Some might object, 'you have to hold down the gas' to feed the fire of the lighter after sparking it. However, the flame of the lighter cannot be called 'esh' (fire) but is rather 'ner' (flame). Ditto for a candle. However, see Gen. 22:6 (flint simply represents fire here, i.e. what causes a fire). 'Esh' in its Sabbath context, refers to a wood fire (or some similar kindling such as leaves).

Some might also object to matches: matches are small pieces of wood you have to pick up to light (could be viewed as gathering). However, striking a match is essentially the the act of lighting a single stick without actively feeding it (it feeds itself). Gathering, then, can only refer to sticks that are on the ground or in nature. Those already in a box/book/inside can be used to light a fire, but not to feed it (that would be work).

However, Ex. 3:2 reads, יֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה אָסֻֽרָה־נָּ֣א וְאֶרְאֶ֔ה אֶת־הַמַּרְאֶ֥ה הַגָּדֹ֖ל הַזֶּ֑ה מַדּ֖וּעַ לֹא־יִבְעַ֥ר הַסְּנֶֽה

"And Moses said, I will turn now and I will will see this great sight, how the bush is not consumed"

This might indicate that when something is normally ba'ar-ed it is burnt up. Here, Moses wonders why the bush isn't burnt up completely and consumed.

This might lend itself to a more strict interpretation: nothing may be burnt up by flames. Therefore lighting a campfire would be forbidden. I believe a balanced view would be to say that no esh (campfire/flames plural) may be kindled, but this doesn't indlude (nerot) lamps/ single flames. Some may say, 'a lamp's flame consumes the oil' or 'a candle consumes the wick.' But I would say, 'the lamp candle is not licked up by flames in a blaze as wood is.' A candle is burned on its exposed surface, and not consumed in a blaze as wood is. Therefore candles and lamps do not fall into the same category as campfires, and nor do embers.

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