Parashat Vayakhel-P’kudei (Exodus 35:1-40:38)

“And all the skilled women spun with their own hands, and brought what they had spun, in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen.” (Exodus 35:25)

Parashat Vayakhel triggers a sense of déjà vu because Moses repeats the instructions for constructing the mishkan (Tabernacle) to the entire Israelite people. Big chunks of the parasha (portion) reprise God’s instructions to Moses (Ex. 25:1-27:17; 30:1-31:18), more or less verbatim. Since the previous set of instructions end with the injunction to observe Shabbat, Vayakhel creates a symmetry by opening with one of the Torah’s very few specific laws of Shabbat: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.” (Ex. 35:3) This verse offers a window into how Jewish law unfolds.

The rabbis of the Talmud infer it is permissible to light a fire before Shabbat and let it continue to burn without refueling it. They recognize the fire’s light and warmth contribute to the enjoyment of Shabbat (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 23b). Hundreds of years later, the Karaites (9th century Jews who believe in the strictly literal interpretation of the Torah) reject this interpretation and forbid any fire on Shabbat—even one lit beforehand. They sit in the cold and dark all Friday night. According to Nahum Sarna (1923–2005; modern Biblical scholar) the Geonim (heads of the Babylonian academies of learning at the time) fight back by instituting the recitation of a bracha (blessing) before lighting the fire, making it a sacred act. Finally, they add theological heft to the new ritual by lighting a fire for each of the two versions of the Shabbat commandment in the Torah. Thus, our custom of lighting and blessing two candles for Shabbat.

The Torah may be the source of Jewish law, but the rabbis’ interpretations are the source of Jewish practice.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom