To Kindle a Fire

March 21, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day” (Exodus 35:3).  Orthodox Jews extend this prohibition to electricity. No flipping that wall switch or pushing the start button. But Jews have figured out ways of getting around this restriction – keeping to the letter of the law without having to endure the least inconvenience.

Last June, I blogged (here) about the shabbos goy – the gentile you pay to come in and light the oven. (“Hey, God only said that I couldn’t start the oven. He didn’t say anything about hiring someone else to do it.”) This last shabbat, an orthodox woman in Brooklyn had another way to to get around the restriction. She turned her hotplate on before sundown Friday and left it on. That way she could use it all day Saturday. (“See, God didn’t say we couldn’t cook on shabbat. He only said that we couldn’t kindle a fire.”)

The hotplate sparked a fire, and seven children in the house died.

The authorities attributed the fire to an unknown malfunction in the electric hot plate, a device often used by observant Jewish families to keep food warm from sundown on Friday, the start of the Sabbath, until its end on Saturday night.   (NYT)

“Observant.”  But what are they observing? In that earlier post, I said that what bothered me about these legalistic interpretations was the tone that often accompanied the hypocrisy – “at worst a smug satisfaction, more typically an amiable chuckle – as though there were virtue in putting one over on God.”

But it’s worse than that. How clever to seize on the narrowest interpretation of God’s words, “you” and “kindle a fire,” (much like the Republicans currently in King v. Burwell seizing on a single word in the healthcare law as justification for destroying Obamacare). And how utterly stupid to elevate that linguistic technicality above the spirit of the words and above ordinary safety and sense.

We’ve been here before. Some years ago a religious leader pointed out (mostly to Jews) this mistake of keeping the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit. He frequently put it this way: “You have heard that it is written . . . but I say unto you.”  Eventually he developed a fairly large following.

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