One of the most common questions we hear today is, “why can’t I light a fire on Shabbat? After all, it is very easy to light a fire nowadays using a match or a lighter. A quick flip of a switch or a turn of the ignition is effortless compared to the work that had to be done in ancient times in order to start a fire”.
This question stems from the misconception that the purpose of Shabbat is to rest the body in a physical way. Indeed, if the Torah were to prohibit fatigue and exhaustion on Shabbat, the question would then be appropriate and we would not be allowed to do anything that makes us tired. For example, it would be forbidden for us to move heavy chairs around for guests, carry heavy pots for large parties, or to even take long and tiring walks around the city – as fatigue is an outcome of all of these activities.
However, according to the Torah, if the physical exertion is for Shabbat purposes then it is not prohibited. Therefore, all of the activities mentioned above that involve physical exertion are permitted on Shabbat. The same goes for lighting a fire. If the reason for the prohibition of lighting a fire were because of the effort involved in rubbing stones together, the activity would not be forbidden provided that it is for Shabbat purposes. According to this rationale, we’d be allowed to use fire by lighting one flame from another flame that was lit prior to Shabbat.
But in the commandment: “You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day”, the Torah prohibited all forms of kindling – without making a distinction between lighting with exertion or lighting without exertion. The reason for this is profound yet clear and simple at the same time.
Regarding the general reason that we were commanded to refrain from work on Shabbat it says:
The Children of Israel shall observe the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath an eternal covenant for their generations, between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever that in a six-day period Hashem made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.
The Torah is clearly stating that we are commanded to observe Shabbat so that we can attest to the fact that we recognize that the world was created by the Creator during the six days of creation, with Shabbat being the seventh and final day. Since man resembles his Creator in that he can control the world, has the ability to choose, the power to build, destroy, plant and uproot, therefore, he may easily forget about his Creator and feel like he does not have to be subservient to a higher being. And if he does in fact forget his Maker and detach from Him, he will lose out on all the spiritual and physical good that the Creator has to offer. This is why the Creator has lovingly commanded the following:
On every seventh day, on the day in which I rested from My work of creation, you too must stop your work in My world and avoid doing work throughout that 24 hour period. In this way, you will acknowledge Me as the Creator of the world, and you will remember that the Creator of the world is always above you (incidentally, this is the reason it says that those who desecrate Shabbat will be put to death – at the time when the Sanhedrin used to rule on capital punishment) and ‘For whoever does work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among its people’ As Shabbat is the test of faith in G-d.
This can be likened to a king who is delivering a speech on a podium before tens of thousands of people sitting in their chairs. At the end of his speech he declares: ‘And now, whoever recognizes me as king shall rise and anyone who wants to rebel against me shall remain seated.’ So everyone stands up with great enthusiasm except for one man who remains seated. When the king’s officers turn to him and say: ‘didn’t you hear the king’s order?’ the man replies, ‘I heard it’, and makes a dismissing gesture with his hand.
But wait a minute, when they take him away to be executed for rebelling against the king, someone might come along and ask: ‘What kind of a state law is this?’ People here are executed for wanting to remain seated? The answer is that the moment the king declares that this is a test of faith; either accepting him as king or rebelling against the kingdom, the issue becomes a matter of life and death.
The same is true in our case, when the King of the Universe had made the following declaration:
The Children of Israel shall observe the Sabbath…an eternal covenant…between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever, that in a six-day period Hashem made heaven and earth.
The desecration of Shabbat has a totally different meaning, as the King had made it clear that it is not enough for Him to hear verbal proclamations of faith, He wants to see proof through action.
And now, let us reflect.
The root of the word melachah (creative work) is melech – king. While the root of the word avodah (physical work, which is seemingly similar to melachah in its meaning) is eved – slave.
Isn’t it astonishing that two words that appear identical in their meaning have opposite root definitions? One’s essence is ‘king’; a person who stands at the top of human dignity, while the second one’s essence is ‘slave’; a person who stands on the lowest rung of the ladder.
But the explanation is that avodah always involves exertion. It comes from the root definition of avdut (slavery) and physical toil, whereas melachah does not necessarily involve exertion. It possesses the property of melech; like a king who makes effortless commands and the actions are carried out. The same is true for a person who performs a melachah; he controls the physical and creates a significant change – even if he does not exert physical effort. For example, lighting a spark of fire, sifting out impurities from food, writing, planting, or watering a plant, laundering, and so on.
And as such, an action that relates to the creation of the world is referred to as melachah and not avodah, as it says:
By the seventh day G-d completed His work, which He had done, and He abstained on the seventh day from all His work, which He had done.
The reason for this is clear – the process of creation was carried out in a regal manner. The physical world was manipulated without weariness or effort, as such concepts do not apply to the Creator. After all, it says, “By the word of Hashem the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their host”. As it says in the portion of creation: “G-d said ‘let there be light’ and there was light.” This happened without any effort or physical exertion.
In light of this, we see that on the seventh day the Creator ceased all His work. Therefore, when we were told to abstain from work on the seventh day as a testament of our faith in the Creator, we were instructed in the following way by the Ten Commandments: “The seventh day is Shabbat to Hashem, your G-d; you shall not do any work”. Therefore, any action defined as melachah that’s enumerated in the Mishnah among the thirty-nine work categories that were passed down to Moshe at Sinai, is included in the general prohibition of the desecration of Shabbat. Therefore, a person who inserts even one seed into the ground is guilty of desecrating Shabbat, because even though it’s true that there’s no physical exertion involved in this action, he is still performing a melachah, as this seed will inevitably begin to sprout. This is true for a reaper – even if he only harvests one stalk of grain or merely picks one fruit. The same goes for a person who lights a fire – even if he only lights a match or a lighter, or ignites a car, or flips on a light switch and is not exerting himself physically, he is still initiating a melachah. This applies to all melachot.
Anyone who reflects upon the way in which a true Shabbat observer celebrates Shabbat, will quickly understand that after a 24 hour resting period for the soul, the Shabbat observer will go out into the work week with a refreshed and invigorated spirit. After all, he is resting his mind and body like a person resting in a hotel every seventh day of his life – without worrying about food preparation, as the food is already prepared on the Shabbat hot plate. He does not have to worry about washing the car or gardening, as this was already done on Friday, nor does he have to worry about laundry or any other household duty, as that too will be taken care of when Shabbat is over. He doesn’t even have to worry about getting up to flip on the light switch because the timer is programmed to do that for him. He is also exempt on the seventh day of every week in his life from the tensions of the media, the phone, and the tiring conversations about money and business. This kind of person is like a king for a day. It comes as no surprise then that after several days, by the time Wednesday rolls around, he’s already longing for Shabbat. He anticipates it and awaits its arrival.
The lofty spiritual significance of Shabbat is explained in many places in the holy Zohar.
Here is one explanation:
On this day (Shabbat), all the souls of the righteous indulge in the delights of ‘atika kadisha s’tima d’chol stimin’, and a spirit that is drawn from the delight of ‘atika kadisha’(this is the extra soul that a Jew receives on Shabbat), spreads throughout the realms. It goes up and down and runs back and forth spreading to all of the holy members of the people of Israel who observe the laws of the Torah. This extra spirit gives them a restful break, while all the upper indignations and harsh judgments are forgotten and annulled.
The Shabbat observer’s livelihood is also blessed on Shabbat, as it says: “G-d blessed the seventh day”, meaning, He embedded in it a quality of blessing and abundance for those who properly observe it. The holy Zohar explains that the days of this world correspond to the upper days of the spiritual realm, and the upper seventh day infuses the rest of the six upper days with abundance. That is where the abundance of the six days of creation descends from (this can be likened to a central well that fills up six pools around it with a stream flowing out of each of these pools for the benefit of mankind).
Here are the words of the Zohar:
This is unclear. Here we are told that food will not be found on this day, so how is this a day of blessing? But we have learned that all the blessings in the upper and lower realms are contingent upon the seventh day. Why was the Manna not found on the seventh day? Because all the other upper days receive their blessing on that day, and each day provides sustenance down here on earth by virtue of the blessing it received on the seventh day (this is why the Manna did not descend to our world on the seventh day, because the only job the seventh day has is to give blessing and abundance to the rest of the days.
And the food that is eaten on Shabbat comes from the abundance that flows down to this world during the other days of the week).
The sages of the mystics have elucidated that the number six is an expression of the physical world of nature, which is limited to six sides. After all, everything that’s physical has six sides; east, west, north, south, up and down. The number seven on the other hand expresses the spirituality that’s contained inside the physical – like a soul inside a body. And just as a soulless body deteriorates and fades away, so too, money that is created during the six days of the week by someone who does not observe the Shabbat laws in the proper way, is money that has no inner spirit and thus will have no true purpose. This idea is expressed by the profound words of the Kabbalist, Rabbi Shlomo Elkabetz in his famous liturgical poem, Lecha Dodi
To welcome the Shabbat, let us progress, for that is the source, from which to bless…(English translation of poem taken from Chabad.org)
Meaning, Shabbat is the source from which all weekdays are blessed, as the above Zohar explains. It is important to mention that the blessing for a good livelihood is not for a higher income per se, but rather for gaining the highest level of spiritual and material benefit from the current income. The monetary wealth that belongs to the Shabbat observer is physical currency with a spiritual enlightenment that generates positive abundance. For further reading on this topic, refer to the letter Zayin in the book, Hatzofen.
Notes and Sources
 Shmot 35:3
 Shmot 31:16-17
 Shmot 31:14
 Bereishit 2:2
 Tehillim 33:6
 Bereishit 1:3
 Shmot 20:9
 Mishnah Shabbat 7:2
 Zohar Yitro 89a
 Bereishit 2:3
 Zohar Yitro 88a
 Bereishit 2:3
 Shmot 16:26