The construction of the Tabernacle stopped for Shabbat and that is where we learn the details of what manual labor was forbidden on Shabbat. Anything that was stopped on that day relating to the construction, however minor or remote. Most of the time when the Torah talks about Shabbat it is regarding a cessation of work. That is how it is introduced in the Ten Commandments. But the Torah also quite separately forbids moving out of one’s area of habitation on Shabbat.
This week the Torah adds an extra law “Do not transfer fire in your dwellings on Shabbat.” This takes the prohibition of work out of the work place and into the home. But it raises a totally different category of what is forbidden on Shabbat.
We mistakenly think of life in Biblical period as primitive and in most parts of the world it was. We imagine that to get fire was difficult. You had to rub flints together It was hard work. But that was what cavemen did. In the Middle East of those days Egypt was a highly sophisticated culture long before the Exodus. Think of the pyramids and other brilliant engineering feats. The Land of Israel was the meeting point between Egypt in the south and the great Hittite culture to the north and the Sumerian and Assyrian worlds of the east. All the latest knowledge and expertise flowed through that area where Israel is today. Making fire was as easy as matches are today. You had slow burning charcoal in metal containers. You just needed to put a piece if straw or wood in to the container, blow and voila you had a flame, not really what we would call hard work.
Fire was then like electricity is today. Imagine New York with no electricity. Everything would grind to a halt and with no television, computers, Ipads, elevators our normal life styles would be brought to a halt. If one had to think of only one item that enables our society to function it would electricity. And fire held that place then. Easily accessible it was what made leisure as well as war and industry possible. Fire was one of the four elements the Greeks thought the world was composed of.
Banning its use on Shabbat made a clear division between the material society around them and creating a totally different kind of atmosphere. Banning creating fire on Shabbat was a way of getting the Israelites to live in a completely different world for one day each week. Difference was what emphasized individuality and spirituality. The two factors that have preserved our separate culture to this day.