The rabbis interpreted this prohibition literally. One cannot kindle fire on Shabbat. One may however make use of fire if it was lit prior to the start of Shabbat. In traditional homes lights are left on during Shabbat, but never turned on and stoves are kept at a low temperature but again never ignited. This is why many Shabbat recipes are of the slow cook variety such as cholent.
There were others who interpreted this verse in a different manner. The sectarian Karaites, who rejected the oral law, spent their Shabbat in darkness. In their worldview no manner of fire could be used on Shabbat. Scholars suggest that our lighting of candles and in particular its accompanying blessing was a response to these Karaites. Also in this blessing and the lighting of the Shabbat candles we discover the meaning of this prohibition for our times.
Fire can of course both warm and burn. It can be comforting and dangerous. It is similar to the Hebrew term, yirat hashamayim, fear of heaven. It is this term that the tradition uses to describe a person of faith. It is in a sense one who bows before heaven. Like fire’s dual meaning, yirah can also be translated as awe.
The great Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, writes:
Fear is the anticipation and expectation of evil or pain, as contrasted with hope which is the anticipation of good. Awe, on the other hand, is the sense of wonder and humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery. Fear is “a surrender of the succors which reason offers”; awe is the acquisition of insights which the world holds in store for us. Awe, unlike fear, does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but, on the contrary, draws us near to it. This is why awe is compatible with both love and joy.Awe is the more apt description of the faith we strive towards. We return to the lights of Shabbat.
Fire can be both dangerous and inspiring. The brilliance of the rabbis was to demand a blessing before the lighting of fire. In that way the fire is transformed into an object of holiness. Fire is not be feared. It is to be held in awe. At the beginning of Shabbat when fire is prohibited, and then again at the conclusion of Shabbat when fire is again permitted we thus offer blessings. We elevate fire to the holy. We no longer fear it. We transform the potentially dangerous and bask in its warmth.
We again turn to Heschel’s God in Search of Man:
The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.May our Shabbat lights help us to stand in awe before God and God’s world. May these fires only be awe-inspiring.