One of the beautiful things that are found in the Hebrew Bible are stories where the hero is anonymous, without a name. For me, as a Biblical Hebrew teacher, every story that has the Hebrew words "ish" (man) or "isah"(woman), create an important discussion with my students. Today we are going to speak about the man who defiled the Shabbat in Numbers 15:32-36, as written:
"וַיִּהְיוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּמִּדְבָּר; וַיִּמְצְאוּ אִישׁ מְקֹשֵׁשׁ עֵצִים בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת. וַיַּקְרִיבוּ אֹתוֹ, הַמֹּצְאִים אֹתוֹ מְקֹשֵׁשׁ עֵצִים--אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן, וְאֶל, כָּל-הָעֵדָה. וַיַּנִּיחוּ אֹתוֹ, בַּמִּשְׁמָר: כִּי לֹא פֹרַשׁ, מַה-יֵּעָשֶׂה לוֹ. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מוֹת יוּמַת הָאִישׁ; רָגוֹם אֹתוֹ בָאֲבָנִים כָּל-הָעֵדָה, מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה. וַיֹּצִיאוּ אֹתוֹ כָּל-הָעֵדָה, אֶל-מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה, וַיִּרְגְּמוּ אֹתוֹ בָּאֲבָנִים, וַיָּמֹת: כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה, אֶת-מֹשֶׁה"
"And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the Sabbath day. And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto the entire congregation. And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him. And the LORD said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: the entire congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp. And the entire congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the LORD commanded Moses. "
As a Jew who is traditional ("masorty") this passage can show me the difference between the Shabbat in the wilderness in those days and the Shabbat in our world nowadays. With no doubt, Shabbat should be different. Shabbat must be a day of resting, reading, a day where the family is the only thing that's important.
Even if you light a fire on this day, don’t do it in front of all the community, who keep this day as the people of Israel did in the wilderness. This is the problem of the man that is described above. He made fire without any thought of his community, his people, and his congregation.
The problem that a lot of people had with this passage is the punishment. In Exodus 31:12-17 is written:
" וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. וְאַתָּה דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר, אַךְ אֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי, תִּשְׁמֹרוּ: כִּי אוֹת הִוא בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם, לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם--לָדַעַת, כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם. וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת, כִּי קֹדֶשׁ הִוא, לָכֶם; מְחַלְלֶיהָ, מוֹת יוּמָת--כִּי כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בָהּ מְלָאכָה, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִקֶּרֶב עַמֶּיהָ. שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, יֵעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן קֹדֶשׁ, לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה מְלָאכָה בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, מוֹת יוּמָת. וְשָׁמְרוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת, לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת לְדֹרֹתָם, בְּרִית עוֹלָם. בֵּינִי, וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל--אוֹת הִוא, לְעֹלָם: כִּי-שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, שָׁבַת וַיִּנָּפַשׁ"
"And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily my Sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the LORD that doth sanctify you. Ye shall keep the Sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defiled it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD: whosoever doeth any work in the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed. "
The Shabbat is a sign of a covenant between G-d and his people. It is also the fourth commandment. The time and the place are important and sacred for G-d. Shabbat is a sacred time and this is the reason that the punishment in modern eyes seems to be uneasy for us to understand.
The Jewish tradition gave two identities to the man who defiled the Sabbath. The first was Zelophehad, whose daughters asked to inherit his territory. The second is a man from a group whose name is "ma'apilim" (illegal immigrant who entered the Promised Land without the permission of G-d). For the lovers of the Biblical Hebrew, I am sure that this information is less important than the meaning- you must respect the day and the time of each community, whether you accept their rules or not!