Friday, February 25, 2022

Stop Playing With Fire


The Cairo Genizah includes a fascinating Ketubah from 1082, which was published by Solomon Schechter in 1901. The husband and wife in this marriage came from two prominent families. The groom was David, the son of Daniel, a candidate for rais al yahud, the leader of the Jewish community, and the son of the Gaon of the Jerusalem yeshiva; and the bride, Nasia, the daughter of Moses, came from a leading Karaite family. While it may seem remarkable to us now, there were many marriages between Karaites and Rabbanites; Marina Rustow, in her book Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate lists a dozen ketubot in the Cairo Geniza from these sort of “mixed marriages.” Nasia’s and David’s Ketubah outlines how the couple was to negotiate their religious differences, as Karaites and Rabbanites have different calendars for the holidays, and divergent religious practices. Among the clauses mentioned in the Ketubah is that the groom agrees that he "would not force the bride to sit with him in front of the Shabbat candles," to ensure that David, the Rabbanite husband, would not force Nasia, his Karaite bride, to violate the dictates of her own tradition.
A Moishe House Havdalah
The Karaites ruled that it is forbidden to have a fire burn in one’s home on Shabbat. (Most Karaites still adhere to this ruling.) This ruling is based on an alternate reading of the verse “Do not kindle a fire in any of your dwellings on the Shabbat day.” In the rabbinic tradition, the Hebrew word tiva’aru is understood as referring to the act of lighting a fire; however, the Karaites read the word tiva’aru as a reference to the burning, and it is prohibited to allow a fire to burn in one's home on Shabbat. Karaites would eat cold Shabbat meals and spend their Shabbat evenings in darkness.
The Karaite practice brought about a sharp response from Rabbinites. Ibn Ezra says that Rav Saadia Gaon wrote an entire essay about this verse in response to the Karaite interpretation. And several practices were adopted to highlight the permissibility, even the obligation, of using a pre-existing flame on Shabbat. The Talmud required candles to be lit before Shabbat, to honor the Shabbat. Many theorize that two additional elements were added to candle lighting in response to the Karaites. First, the second chapter of Mishnah Shabbat, which talks about the lighting of Shabbat candles, was added to the Friday night service; and second, a blessing over lighting the candles, which is not mentioned in the Talmud, was instituted for the Shabbat candles, enshrining them as a full-fledged rabbinic commandment.
Another custom associated with anti-Karaite polemic is eating a slow cooked stew, like cholent or chamin, at Shabbat lunch, because these foods require an ongoing fire to keep them hot. Rabbi Zerachiah Halevi, in his 12th century Sefer HaMaor, writes that if someone in the community refuses to make cholent, one “must check if they are a heretic.” In other words, the custom of having cholent is a way of asserting loyalty to the Rabbanite community.
The extraordinary focus on the prohibition of lighting a fire on Shabbat is to be expected, because it is the only category of prohibited labor mentioned explicitly in the Torah. The Talmud explores why kindling a fire was singled out. Rabbi Yose says that it is because fire is a lesser prohibition, while Rabbi Natan says that it is actually an exemplary act of labor, one which best represents what is forbidden on Shabbat.
It is fascinating when two opinions diverge this much, with one opinion considering fire the lowest form of labor, and the other opinion recognizing fire as an exemplary form of labor. This divergence is because fire has two aspects to it; it is fundamentally a destructive force which consumes everything in its path, yet at the same time, essential to all constructive activity. (Amos Chacham notes that virtually every element of the Mishkan’s construction required fire to work the metal and cook the dyes). Fire is both a force of destruction and the foundation of construction.
When you bring both of these aspects together, you get a fuller picture of why fire is a unique category of work. Rabbi Mordechai Breuer explains that the entire animal kingdom flees from fire, while only humans are capable of subduing it; this ability to tame fire is representative of the overall human mastery of nature. With fire, humanity has performed the ultimate act of creativity, transforming an otherwise destructive force into a constructive tool.
But more than man has transformed fire, fire has transformed man. At Havdalah, a blessing is made over an intertwined candle: “Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, Creator of the fire’s lights”. The Talmud says the reason for this blessing is because fire was first given to mankind on Motzei Shabbat. It explains that “at the conclusion of (the first) Shabbat, the Holy One, Blessed be He, granted Adam, the first man, knowledge similar to divine creative knowledge, and Adam brought two rocks and rubbed them against each other.” (Some Midrashim go further, and say that God actually handed Adam a flame). Fire is a gift from God, and civilization could not have developed without fire. The ability to cook food is the first revolution brought by fire; it allowed humans to eat and digest the requisite calories in a far shorter period of time, allowing for other pursuits. Fire brought about a revolution in toolmaking with the introduction of bronze and iron, and brought about another revolution with the steam engine and the use of electricity. Without fire, civilization would never have developed.
At Havdalah we recognize fire as a gift from God. Rabbi Saul Lieberman points out how this Talmudic tradition contrasts sharply with Greek mythology, where Prometheus steals fire from the gods and gives it to man. Unlike the Promethean myth, which sees the discovery of fire as a rebellion against the gods, Judaism sees fire, and by extension human creativity, as a divine gift bestowed on humanity. God wants man to achieve greatness.
But greatness has its limits. Since the Garden of Eden, humanity has aspired to be godlike; the exceptional gift of fire, and the technologies it enables, opens the door to hubris. It is easy for someone who is supremely creative to imagine they are the creator; and this creativity can become demonic, unmoored from morality and unbounded by limits. The prohibition of kindling a fire on Shabbat is the Torah's way of setting limits, of reminding mankind that the gift of creativity must not become a tool of destruction.
In the course of human history, new technologies have frequently been used first in the service of warfare; swords are the priority while plowshares are an afterthought. The earliest breakthroughs of nuclear technology were immediately used for nuclear weaponry. And in the last century, a chilling new word has been added to the dictionary: omnicide, the obliteration of all living beings. Exceptional breakthroughs in physics have left the world forever on the brink of destruction, one madman away from a cataclysm.
The invention of fire represents a watershed moment in history, when a destructive force was conscripted in the service of creativity. The irony now is that we have conscripted our creativity in the service of destruction. But this is not a failure of human creativity; it is a failure of humans. If we ignore God and insert ourselves in His place, what is best about humanity will quickly become what is worst about humanity.
Today, as Europe stands at the brink of war, the lesson of “do not kindle a fire” is particularly relevant. God has given humanity exceptional gifts, but instead of treasuring them, we have pursued multiple schemes. The lesson of Shabbat is to recognize that creativity is a God-given gift, and not ours to abuse.
We must stop playing with fire.

No comments: