Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Letter Versus Spirit

Last Shabbat a lit a fire.

According to Exodus 35:1-3 this is a violation of the Sinai covenant. The context of the commandment implies the rule exists as a guideline for how much effort counts as "work" to be avoided on Shabbat. I know well from my Boy Scout days that kindling a fire without matches or a lighter is a notable amount of work.

I have heard the reason candles are lit to welcome Shabbat is that the ritual reminded the family to have a flame going as the sun set and Shabbat began. That flame could be passed to other candles, lamps, and stoves during Shabbat.

However, if I tried to keep a continual flame burning from our Erev Shabbat dinner table through the night to use with the stove in the morning, this would be more work than using a lighter in the morning. Oddly, obeying the letter of that law would hinder me from obeying the spirit of that law.

Yet when I do light a fire in the stove on Shabbat I do so differently than during the week. Even though matches and newspaper make the chore very little work anyway, I also set aside the best kindling during the week. Beside the fireplace I accumulate a small pile of "Shabbat kindling" so that if I do need to start a fire on a Shabbat it is not only easy but trivial. My weekday fires take a bit more work to light because I'm preparing for Shabbat, parallel to putting together an uncooked casserole on Thursday afternoon so Friday night can have trivial baking. This is also part of obeying the spirit of the law because fire lighting helps keep me mindful of Shabbat throughout the week.

I can only think of one other commandment where following the letter of the law would mean violating the spirit of the law. In Leviticus 19:27-28 there are rules about sideburns, beards, and tattoos. From what I have read, those rules served to visibly differentiate the ancient Israelites from neighboring people groups (one whom shaved sideburns, another who kept beards short, and a third who used tattoos). I use my necklace, a wedding present from my wife, to visibly show my faith in a parallel way. I could instead style my sideburns and beard as an Orthodox Jew, to better follow the letter of those laws. But then my appearance would no longer indicate my faith, contrary to the spirit of those laws.

There are many, many Tenach commandments that I cannot keep. Obvious examples include anything about the Tabernacle, including the annual holy day observances. Anyone who claims to "follow Torah" is exaggerating: the covenant is a legal contract, and partial obedience is as covenentially invalid as someone paying only part of their mortgage. Yet there is rich spiritual benefit personally and in a community from living according to God's ways, even if it does not pay the rent.

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