Parashat Vayakhel begins with Moshe’s relaying to the people the command to observe Shabbat, singling out in particular the prohibition against kindling a flame on Shabbat – “Lo teva’aru eish be-khol moshevoteikhem be-yom ha-Shabbat” (35:3). Different explanations have been offered for why this prohibition in particular was explicitly mentioned, whereas all the other Shabbat prohibitions are inferred based on the association between Shabbat observance and the construction of the Mishkan. For example, Rashi cites one view in the Gemara stating that the prohibition of hav’ara (kindling a flame) was singled out to indicate its lower halakhic status, that it does not constitute a capital offense as do the other Shabbat violations. The Ramban suggests that hav’ara was mentioned to emphasize that unlike on Yom Tov, when it is permitted to light a fire and perform other melakhot (forbidden activities) for the sake of preparing food, on Shabbat these activities are forbidden even for the purpose of food preparation.
The Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yaakov Medan shelit”a, offered a different explanation, suggesting that Moshe specifies hav’ara because it constitutes what we might call the quintessential melakha. Shabbat observance, at least partially, serves to commemorate God’s cessation of the six-day process of creation. Just as God created for six days and then stopped, we, too “create” for six days and then stop on Shabbat. Rav Medan noted that no act signifies “creation” more than kindling a flame. It is the only of the thirty-nine melakhot – and, in fact, the only human action – which creates something yeish mei-ayin, ex nihilo. All the other forbidden activities on Shabbat entail the transformation of an object, or combining different substances to produce a different substance. Hav’ara is unique in that one creates something entirely new. Certainly, transforming raw food into edible food marks a significant “creation” of sorts, as does the agricultural process, whereby a seed gradually absorbs water and nutrients from the earth and develops into a plant. But in the case of fire, one creates an entirely new entity that did not exist at all. And therefore, Rav Medan explained, hav’ara can be described as the prime melakha, the one that best embodies the concept of Shabbat – the cessation of our “creative” endeavors to commemorate the cessation of God’s creation of all existence ex nihilo.
Rav Medan added that this unique quality of hav’ara might explain why Chazal enacted the practice to kindle a flame immediately before the onset of Shabbat, and immediately upon the conclusion of Shabbat. We light candles just before Shabbat begins, and we light a candle for the recitation of havdala right when Shabbat ends. The explanation, Rav Medan suggested, might be that we “demarcate” Shabbat by performing the prime melakha – the creation of fire – just before and immediately after. By reenacting God’s creation of the world ex nihilo just before we begin Shabbat and just after we end Shabbat, we highlight our commemoration of God’s cessation of creative activity on Shabbat. The act of kindling was specifically chosen for this purpose because it more closely resembles God’s creation of the universe than any of the other creative activities which are proscribed on Shabbat.