Exodus 35:2, The seventh day … shall be … a set-apart day. In our journey through the Torah, the subject of the seventh day Sabbath keeps popping up. When YHVH said in Exodus 20:8 to “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it set-apart (Heb. kadosh),” he keeps reminding them of it so that they won’t forget it! What does this tell us about the importance YHVH places on the weekly Sabbath? With each reminder, he gives additional instructions about how to keep the Sabbath (see Gen 2:2–3; Exod 16:23–30; 20:8–11).
Exodus 35:3, Kindle no fire…on the Sabbath day. There are several prevailing viewpoints as to the exact meaning of this passage. Let’s explore them.
The Orthodox Jews take literally the Torah’s prohibition to kindle no fire on the Sabbath. As such, many do not even turn on a light switch or start their cars (i.e., fire in the spark plugs) on the Sabbath for fear of violating this command. To counter balance this viewpoint, the Torah does indicate that the priest lit the menorah in the tabernacle each morning, the Sabbath not excluded (Exod 27:21–21; 30:7). So, for ministry purposes, lighting a fire seems not to be prohibited.
There is also the viewpoint that since the next verse (Exod 34:4) begins YHVH’s instructions to build the tabernacle, the immediate context of the Sabbath-fire passage has to do with not starting fires that pertain only to one’s trade or job—in Israel’s case, their job was the building of the mishkan. Fires would have been needed for tanning hides, working with metal, and possibly bending wood and dying cloth along with other activities.
This we know for certain. On the Sabbath, YHVH’s people are not to bake, cook or prepare food from scratch (Exod 16:23), but reheating food seems not to be prohibited—something that is even permitted in Orthodox Jewish circles today. What is the bottom line issue here? We are to cease creating on the Sabbath, and cooking food from scratch (as opposed to reheating) changes the chemistry of the food which constitutes creating something (i.e., transforming something from its original state into another state). So fires for cooking would have been prohibited, to be sure. Food must be prepared ahead of time on the sixth day.
Is this Torah command forbidding the lighting of fires for heat and light? Some would say yes, since part of preparing for the Sabbath involves insuring that your heating fire and lights will stay burning through the Sabbath without having to relight them. Was this always possible in ancient times? That’s a question we’ll explore below.
For one thing, it is doubtful that YHVH would have expected his hapless people to sit in the cold darkness on the Sabbath should their fire have gone out—especially in the winter months when the days are shorter and colder, and when snow and cold rain are realities. This would result in the loss of the delight of the day, which, in itself, is a violation the Sabbath (Isa 58:13).
The harsh realities of life in a primitive agrarian culture are evident. The ancient Israelites, obviously, didn’t possess electric or gas push-button heat or lights. If YHVH forbad them from lighting a fire for heat and light purposes, then they would have had to start a fire on Friday before sundown and keep it burning all night and through the Sabbath. This means that if the fire happened to go out during the night because someone slept too soundly and didn’t wake up to add wood to the fire or olive oil to their small terra cotta lamps (which burned only for a short time), then they would either sit in the cold and dark on the Sabbath, or they’d have to fetch some coals from a neighbor who hadn’t let their fire go out. The Israelite who lived in town had another option as well. Often in towns, there were public ovens built into the earth with clay cooking tubes for baking bread. For those who lived nearby, they could bring back some embers from these public ovens to restart their home fires (Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, pp. 47–48, by Fred H. Wight).
In modern times, for those who heat their homes with a wood stove, the most energy efficient home-sized wood stove will burn only for six to eight hours if one has access to hardwoods (like oak, maple or fruitwood) as fuel. Despite one’s best efforts to keep the stove burning all night and the house warm, at times the fire goes out. In the land of Israel, large hardwood trees aren’t prevalent. In ancient times, if they had been, no doubt several million Israelites constantly foraging for hardwood to keep their fires burning would have quickly depleted the region of trees—especially in that arid land where trees grow slowly. In reality, the Israelites were more likely to have used sticks (1 Kgs 17:10), thorn bushes, bundles of dried grass (Matt 6:30; Luke 12:28), charcoal (John 18:18; 21:9 Williams) or dried dung for fire fuel (Ezek 4:15; Ibid., p. 30). Furthermore, warming fires were often built in courtyards (John 18:18). Such fires don’t burn long. At the same time, making fire wouldn’t have been an easy process either, since this was accomplished by rubbing sticks together or by striking flint and steel (Ibid. p. 31).
For sure we know that in days before matches, lighters, push-button furnaces, lights and stoves, starting and maintaining a fire wasn’t a simple task. At the same time, it seems that YHVH wouldn’t have expected the Sabbath to end up becoming a miserable, weekly lesson in wilderness survival in having many of his servants freeze to death in the darkness on this day of joyful rest because their fires went out. He did, however, expect his people to make every possible effort to prepare for the Sabbath ahead of time to keep it from being just another day of laborious work (Exod 16:23). However, this author finds it hard to believe that the Torah forbids starting a fire for heat and light if necessary—especially during the winter months. Therefore, I maintain that starting fires for work purposes was forbidden, but for heat and light purposes, if unavoidable, was permitted.