Parashat Vayakhel: The technicalities of halachah and forming a Jewish worldview

Thanksgiving Day in 1992, the OU kicked off its convention weekend with a symposium on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, featuring two of my teachers, Prof. Isadore Twersky, zt”l, and yib”l, R. Aharon Lichtenstein. Prof. Twersky characterized one aspect of the Rav’s contribution to the Jewish world in a way that remains relevant to contemporary discussions of Jewish issues.

He posited that one of the areas where the Rav excelled (uniquely, he said) was in uniting the worlds of halachah, Jewish law, and hashkafah, Jewish thought. He saw the Rav as building his Jewish worldview, painstakingly and carefully, from the halachic sources. The Rav didn’t posit what he thought Judaism should be, he studied halachic sources which taught what Judaism was.

An example of the importance of this way of approaching halachah and a Jewish life comes at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion (Shmot 35;1-3). In several places, including Shabbat 70a, the Talmud mentions a debate about the significance of Moshe Rabbenu’s warning the Jewish people about Shabbat observance, and singles out lighting or burning fires for special mention.

The Delicate Fabric of Shabbat as Opposed to Holidays

The general opinion is that the verse comes to teach us that each Shabbat violation is separate. Most technically, that means that if a Jew unwittingly violates two different areas of Shabbat observance—cooks and plows without realizing that they are prohibited on Shabbat, for example—s/he would have to bring separate sacrifices to atone for the violation.

There is no sacrifice for that same circumstance in the case of holidays, but there is also no principle of chilluk melachot, separation of categories of creative labor, regarding holidays.

We can dismiss that as technical, but it seems to make a theological point as well. For holiday purposes, all the violations are in some way the same, such that improper activity of one kind is pretty much the same as improper activity of another kind. I also heard R. Lichtenstein once suggest that on a holiday, the goal is to set up a certain kind of day; once that’s been ruined, it’s been ruined, and the further unwitting ruining of it doesn’t add to its ruination.

For Shabbat, though, each act is an act of prohibited creativity, separate and important unto itself. Shabbat isn’t only about the overall atmosphere created, it’s about each element of that overall picture. A Shabbat in which one cooked has been differently violated than one in which one plowed (or did both), and those differences are both halachically and theologically significant.

Fire as an Ordinary Prohibition

But the Gemara reports another view, that of R. Yose, who thought the Torah singled out fire to say that it did not incur the same penalties—death or karet—as other Shabbat violations. This changes his perspective of Shabbat considerably.

What many see as a paradigmatic Shabbat violation, lighting a fire (which, as far as I understand it, is one of the central issues in using electricity on Shabbat and driving a car) would, for R. Yose, “only” be a lav, a regular prohibition. That might mean that he would allow applying the general principle that a positive commandment can push aside a prohibition to lighting a fire on Shabbat (which could lead to all sorts of interesting questions, such as whether we could turn on lights on Shabbat if that were necessary to fulfill some other commandment). Of course, R. Yose is a lone view which we don’t accept, but let me offer two more ramifications of his view, to see how far it takes us.

Tosafot to Pesachim 5b says that R. Yose wouldn’t think that fire was prohibited at all on Yom Tov (we assume that fire was permitted as part of the need to prepare food, and that that created a more general permissibility, but there are some limits to that). Tosafot comes to that because if fire isn’t prohibited at the capital/karet level, it’s not considered a melachah, and only such creative labors were proscribed on holidays.

From the Technical to the Ideological

The subtext of Tosafot’s seemingly technical comment is that R. Yose and the general view disagree over fundamental aspects of Shabbat and holidays. Fire could either be a central version of creative labor, the one that teaches us that each such labor is unique and contributes to (or detracts from) Shabbat in unique ways, or it could not rise to the level of such creativity at all. Similarly, it might or might not be part of holiday observances in Judaism.

That is only one example, and I didn’t skim the surface of the discussions of this one issue. But part of what Talmudists claim—as Prof. Twersky, zt”l, said about the Rav all those years ago — is that the only legitimate way to derive a religion out of the sources of Judaism is by studying those sources carefully, and basing any and all conclusions on the best reading of those sources available to us.

We all have our own intuitions, shaped by a multitude of factors. Part of the discipline of religious study, I have always been taught (all my teachers imbibed the Rav’s worldview), is to set those aside until after having consulted the sources of tradition. Those sources should, ideally, be what shape how we approach the world, how we decide between good and bad, right and wrong, ideal and less so.

That is not to imply that we can fully escape ourselves in our reading of sources (I wrote a PhD thesis on what we find when we tease out what Prof. Haym Soloveitchik has termed “measurable deflection” from authors’ writings). But we need to remember that that’s the goal: to see what tradition itself teaches us, as unadulteratedly as possible. Once we have that in hand, we can let it guide us as we apply that tradition to the circumstances we face in this, our modern world.

The technical can be a turn-off for many of us because it’s so, well, technical. But without it, you can’t produce a reading of the religion grounded in sources, which is the only we have to certify the authenticity of the conclusions we reach, in whatever area of the religion. If we want to know “what Hashem wants from” us, we have to work from the sources Hashem gave us to find out that information. Scripture, with its many traditions of interpretation. Only from there can we reach a version of an authentically Jewish life, a life lived in service of our Creator.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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