The brief opening section of the Sidra narrates how Moses assembled the entire nation, men and women, in order to organise the raising of funds for the construction of the Tabernacle. He also told them that the construction of the Tabernacle would not override observing the Shabbat.
The assembly took place on the day after the first Yom Kippur in our history. Moses had just descended from Mount Sinai, for the third time, holding, in his hands, the second set of two tablets of the covenant.
In the first verse of the Sidra, the Torah uses two Hebrew terms to describe the collective Israelite nation. The first term is KAHAL, from which the name of the Sidra is derived. The second term is EDAH. Both these terms are still used in the Jewish community. Originally, the difference between them was as follows: The root KHL is connected with the word KOL which means voice. A KEHILAH is a congregation which listens to the voice of God. The word EDAH comes from the Hebrew root which means ‘to testify’. It describes the Jewish community’s mission of testifying to the existence of one God and his absolute unity.
The Torah chose the first word of the Sidra, VAYAKHEL, with great care and precision, in order to contrast this assembly with the assembly that took place a few months earlier and which initiated building the golden calf. In that tragic incident, the story begins with the word, VAYIHAHEL. It describes how the hysterical mob assembled around Aaron to demand immediate action. This contrast comes to emphasise the great transformation in the people’s mind-set, within a relatively short space of time. It was a great accomplishment. The people repented and the Almighty forgave them. This accentuates the fact that people can abandon their evil ways quickly, if they have the will power and if they have outstanding leaders.
The first commandment in the Sidra is about the importance of Shabbat. The people were warned that just as the Tabernacle was holy so Shabbat is holy. The tabernacle represents the holiness of space, whereas Shabbat represents the holiness of time. It is easier to appreciate and experience holiness in space than holiness in time. A building has its own natural and clear boundaries. It has walls and fences. Holy time is an abstract concept and requires much more complicated definition. Holiness in time can only be created through the discipline and diligence.
The great Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel devoted an entire book to the concept of Shabbat. He says that the Shabbat was a sanctuary in time which travelled with the Jewish people in all their wanderings amongst the nations. Shabbat was the first sacred institution in the history of civilisation. It originated during the creation of the world. The Torah tells us that God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it. There is no mention whatsoever of sacred space in the story of creation. Even Mount Sinai, on which God revealed himself to Israel, did not become holy. Only after the great sin of the golden calf, did the Almighty command the building of the Tabernacle. He recognised that human beings needed a sacred dwelling place for the divine. Shabbat was not enough. However, the sanctity of Shabbat ranked higher than the sanctity of the Tabernacle. To this day, the sanctity of Shabbat ranks higher than the sanctity of any synagogue.
Chapter 35 Verse 3 is notoriously problematic. It reads: “Do not create fire in all your habitations on the Shabbat Day.” The question is: Why has this category of work been singled out here, out of all the other 38 forbidden labours? Many reasons have been suggested. The famous mediaeval commentator, Avraham Ibn Ezra advances a likely reason. He says that this is because the creating of fire is essential for cooking, which is the most common activity in ordinary homes. On festivals it is permitted to use fire in order to cook, as well as to warm up food and also to light up the house. The Torah needed to reiterate that the laws of Shabbat are stricter; and that even creating fire, which is such a vital domestic activity, is forbidden. All the meals of Shabbat have to be cooked before Shabbat. They are then either kept warm on a hot plate or alternatively they may be served cold if they are salads. All the lights must be switched on before Shabbat and heaters must already be set on time switches.
The Italian commentator, Sforno, explains that this prohibition is mentioned specifically because when fire is used, it also destroys. Thus, when we cook or use candles, we burn up materials and destroy them. For this reason we might have thought that creating fire is permitted. However, the Torah reminds us that it is forbidden.
Avraham Ibn Ezra writes in his commentary that he had a very serious argument with a Karaite scholar regarding this prohibition. It is a long and most striking annotation. The Karaite sect was very large in the Middle Ages and one of its centres was in Egypt. This heretical sect, which rejected the whole of the Talmud and the oral traditions, voiced its opposition to rabbinic Judaism with great vehemence. The Karaites claimed that our verse forbids the use of fire altogether, for any purpose, and they therefore sat at home on Shabbat in complete cold and darkness. Ibn Ezra states that he attempted to prove to the Karaite scholar that his understanding of the verse was inconsistent and that without the Oral interpretations, he couldn’t observe Shabbat. He challenged the scholar to explain how he knew that the prohibition to use fire included Friday Night, since the verse mentions the Shabbat Day. The Karaite did not know the answer. Ibn Ezra writes that he that he had thus won the argument. He had proven that even the Karaites needed the oral traditions.
According to Orthodox philosophy, one of the principles of Judaism is that we were given two sets of Teachings on Mount Sinai; the Oral Law and the Written Law. They are completely dependent on each other. We cannot make sense of the Written Law without studying the Oral Law, as it has come down to us in the Talmud.