By Israel Drazin
The biblical portions of Vayakeil and Pekudei, Exodus 35:1- 40:38, have many biblical laws and a host of descriptions of the ancient tabernacle, the Mishkan, used by the Israelites during their forty-year desert wanderings. I will discuss the Sabbath and the Cherubim.
Why does the Torah single out that “You shall kindle no fire on the sabbath day”? The commentators Rashbam, ibn Ezra, Nachmanides, and others explain that since the Bible allowed the use of fire during holidays in Exodus 12:16, it needed to state explicitly that this use was forbidden on the Sabbath.
Why was fire prohibited? There are many views. One is that the Sabbath reminds us that there is a God who created the world and revealed laws. The Sabbath is the day when God ceased from doing creative acts. Thus Jews remember these things on the Sabbath by, like God, also ceasing doing creative acts such as making a fire. Fire is allowed on holidays since holidays do not recall the creation.
Is electricity fire? When the question was submitted to rabbis in the modern era – can we turn on an electric light, can we drive a car – the rabbis said that electricity is like fire. Therefore the current halakhah, religious law, is that turning on a light or otherwise starting an electric current is prohibited.
What was the original interpretation of “no fire throughout your habitation on the Sabbath day”? The Sadducees of the second century BCE to the first or second century CE, and the Karaites who originated in the middle ages, claimed that this law prohibited having a fire in the home on the Sabbath. Thus their homes were sometimes dark and cold. Some scholars say that the Sadducees were the “righteous party,” from the Hebrew word tzedek, and they were insisting that the ancient biblical practices be continued. The Pharisees disagreed. Some scholars say the Hebrew of Pharisees, Perushim, a word meaning separatists, means those who reformed Judaism. The Pharisees and their successors the rabbis, interpreted the verse, as it is understood today, to mean we may not ignite a new flame.
The Pharisees introduced a new practice into Judaism to counteract the Sadducean view. Jews should light Shabbat candles on Friday night just before the Shabbat to demonstrate that the Torah does not prohibit light in the home on the Shabbat, but only igniting it anew. Thus the Shabbat is a day of warmth and light, a day set aside for joy not frigid darkness, a day of study, a chance to relax and improve.
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This portion also discusses the Cherubim, as did quite a few other biblical verses. These were two figures placed on top of the ark in the holiest place in the tabernacle and later temples. Some scholars and rabbis say that it is possible that the purpose of the Cherubim was to screen the ark – cover it so that it would not be seen – with their wings. Others say that the Cherubim were guards protecting the ark. A decorative representation of the cherubim was also used placed on many parts of the tabernacle and temples. (Other sites for the Cherubim, for example, are Genesis 3:24; Exodus 25: 18-20, 26:1, 31, 36:8, 35; I Kings 6:27-29, 32, 35, 7:29, 36; I Samuel 4:4; II Samuel 6:2, 22:11; II Kings 19:15; Isaiah 37:16; Ezekiel 1ff, 10ff, 28:13ff, 37:7-9, 41:18-20, 25; Psalms 18:11, 80:2, 99:1; I Chronicles 28:18; and II Chronicles 3:13. See also the Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 99a and Yoma 54a and b.) What were the Cherubim?
The name Cherubim is obscure. Some scholars think it is an inversion of letters and is derived from rekhuv, which means “chariot.” Others suggest that it is from the Akkadian karabu, “to pray” or “to bless,” the cherubim were beings who interceded and brought the prayers of humans to the gods.
Two biblical sources, Exodus 37:9 and II Chronicles 3:13, give different descriptions of the Cherubim. Exodus states that the two figures had “faces (turned) to the other.” Chronicles states instead that they “faced the house,” the temple. The Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 99a, offers a homiletical explanation: when Israel did the will of God, the cherubim faced each other; but when they did not do the will of God, they faced away from each other. This is a nice sermonic lesson; however we also know that the biblical book Chronicles even changed names of biblical characters and spelled names differently. While the authors of the biblical books Judges, Joshua, Samuel, and Kings told about the ancient Israelites and included their faults and failures, the author of Chronicles wrote his book to show the glory of the past and omitted the ancestors’ faults. Thus he was not careful to copy what others wrote before him.
Josephus, writing in his book Antiquities during the first century CE reveals that we no longer have any idea what the cherubim looked like or what their function was. We know that other ancient cultures had similar if not the same beings. The Babylonians, for example, used winged bulls with human faces set at the entrance to their temples and palaces to protect them
Are these figures a violation of the command in the Ten Commandments not to make figures? Many rabbis say that that command only prohibited making idols to worship and did not prohibit making other statutes and paintings.