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It's Sure Dark in Here!

02/29/2024 02:42:01 PM


On Shabbat, we refrain from using electricity at B’nai Torah, as we understand it to be prohibited by the Torah. However, an observant (pun intended) individual will notice that there are people who work for B’nai Torah and help us manage the Zoom, make the coffee, or even secure our building, all of which require the use of electricity. The way this works is a “legal fiction” that supposes that these individuals who are working on behalf of our Jewish community are using the electricity of their own free will and volition. We hire them before shabbat to keep us safe, to stream services, or to help manage the building, and it’s fine if they use electricity to aid themselves in the work that they do that day. It’s prohibited, though, for us to directly ask them to violate Shabbat as they’d be doing so as our agents following our directives. Thus, I might comment “it’s surely dark in here,” and they helpfully might turn on the lights, even though I didn’t directly ask them too. How convenient! But where in the Torah does it say that we can’t use electricity on Shabbat? Where do all these prohibitions of Shabbat come from?

There are many places in the Torah, including both mentions of the Ten Commandments, that a person must refrain from work on Shabbat. The Hebrew word used for work is the specific word “melacha.” On Shabbat (and some holidays) we can’t do melacha. But melacha is never defined, and the Torah is scarce on details of what falls into those categories of work. Enter this week’s Parsha, Ki Tissa. In this week’s portion, the Israelites begin the construction of the portable Tabernacle, the mishkan. However, right before the construction begins in earnest, the Israelites receive the reminder that they are not allowed to work on the construction on Shabbat (Exodus 31:12-17). From this, ancient rabbinic sages deduced that the kind of work that went into building the Tabernacle would be considered melacha and came up with 39 categories of work. While the Torah doesn’t mention anything on electricity, modern sages will often categorize the prohibition under one of the 39 principal categories of melacha.

While the legal conversation of what is and what isn’t considered melacha might be technical, the implications of linking the prohibitions to the Tabernacle can have deep spiritual significance. Regarding the prohibitions that were derived from the work required to build the mishkan, it is noteworthy that they fall into larger categories of works related to fabrics (weaving, tying knots, dying, shearing etc.), food preparation (slaughtering, plowing, winnowing, etc.) and construction (building, carrying, demolishing, writing, etc.).  These categories of clothing, food, and shelter correspond to the prime necessities of life. And while we don’t forgo food, clothing, or shelter on Shabbat, not needing to busy ourselves with where our next meal will come from nor how we will weather an upcoming storm system allows us to focus on the more spiritual nature of the day. Therefore, while we can get caught up in the legal conversation of where electricity is prohibited in the Torah or how we can benefit from someone who does melacha of their own volition, we’d be remiss of the fact that there is more to Shabbat than just dos and don’ts. Surely, we should work to fulfill the precepts of Shabbat and cease from our melacha, but we should also appreciate that by not focusing on these physical and creative activities, we can focus on the more spiritual – the function of the mishkan in the first place.


Shabbat Shalom

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784