From the ashes of tragedy: Parshat Ki Tisa
Shortly after midnight, on September 2, 1666, a fire broke out in Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane, in the city of London. Farriner and his family, who lived upstairs, managed to escape through a window, but unfortunately, their maidservant was too frightened to climb onto the neighbors’ roof, and she became the first victim of the fire.
The street quickly mobilized, throwing buckets of water onto the flames, but a long dry summer had made the wooden houses like tinder and the fire spread. The main way of preventing fire from spreading in 17th century London was to use long hooks to pull down the adjoining buildings. However, when the firemen were about to demolish the houses, the people who lived there began to protest. The Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth was called to adjudicate, and he made the wrong decision. The truth is that it may have already been too late to stop the spread of the fire, but Bloodworth’s indecisiveness was considered a major factor at the time.
By the next morning, the wind had caused the fire to spread rapidly and about 300 houses had been destroyed. Pretty soon the flames reached the banks of the Thames and people started fleeing the city. Bloodworth insisted he was doing his best to extinguish the fire, but King Charles II sailed down the river on the Royal barge to see for himself what was happening. Charles had only been king since 1660, after the failure of Richard Cromwell to govern, leading to the restoration of the monarchy. He ignored Bloodworth’s authority and ordered the firemen to demolish all the buildings to the west of the fire.
The fire continued to spread throughout Monday. It burned across London Bridge – the only bridge across the Thames at that time — but did not spread to the south bank. It spread north to the financial heart of the city, causing bankers to grab their gold and flee.
Many upper-class people took coaches to come and witness the fire. According to John Evelyn, a courtier, “The whole City in dreadful flames near the water-side; all the houses from the Bridge, all Thames-street, and upwards towards Cheapside, down to the Three Cranes, were now consumed.”
By now, conspiracy theories began to arise. People started to suspect it was foreigners who had started the fire, made more believable because a year earlier, the Second Anglo-Dutch War had begun. Others said the Catholics were responsible for the fire (This was only a few decades after the Gunpowder Plot and Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament). Rumors spread faster than the flames and the soldiers spent more time rounding up foreigners and other suspicious-looking people than fighting the flames.
As far as I can tell, for once, Jews were not blamed for a disaster. This may be because they had only been let back into England a few years earlier, and there were fewer than 200 Jews in the city.
By now, Bloodworth appeared to have fled the city, so Charles put his brother James, Duke of York, in charge of firefighting operations.
Despite the unprecedented destruction on Monday, Tuesday was even worse. St. Paul’s Cathedral burned to the ground. The fire advanced on both the Palace of Whitehall to the west and the Tower of London to the east. Guards in the Tower used gunpowder to blow up large areas of houses, creating a firebreak and halting the fire.
By Wednesday the wind died down and the fire was brought under control, although coals continued to burn in cellars for months afterwards. Samuel Pepys climbed the steeple of Barking Church to view the city, declaring it was “the saddest sight I ever saw.”
Rumors continued to spread that the Dutch or French were launching an invasion, and mobs attacked any foreigners they could find.
Officially, only a handful of people died in the fire. Most had time to flee the city. But it is unknown how many were killed by the xenophobic mobs, or died on the road out of the city, or during the long, cold winter that followed when they had no homes and few possessions.
At that time, London was the third-biggest city in Western Europe, and by far the largest city in Britain. The fire destroyed over 13,000 homes, three of the city gates and dozens of churches and public buildings. It was the biggest disaster to befall London.
Today, it is mainly remembered through the nursery rhyme, “London’s burning”:
London’s burning, London’s burning.
Fetch the engines, fetch the engines.
Fire, fire; fire, fire!
Pour on water, pour on water.
Strange as it may seem, they did have fire engines in the 17th century, but they were basically barrels on wheels which were wheeled into position and pumped to squirt out water. It would need be regular refilled with buckets and took four people to operate.
The destruction was immense. Walter Bell in his 1920 book, “The Great Fire of London” (p.315) quoted an eyewitness who wrote:
Little of the city remaynes, save part of Broad and Bishopsgate streete, all Leadenhall street, and some of the adjacent lanes about Algate and Cretchett Fryers.
Fortunately, for the tiny London Jewish community, that was the area where the Synagogue was, and where most of them lived. However, Jewish books were scarce. Solomon Franco had a been a rabbi but converted to Anglicanism two years after the fire. In his 1668 Christian polemic, “Truth Springing Out of the Earth,” he wrote in the “Epistle to the Reader”:
Whereas… I do quote several passages out of the Talmud without setting forth the Books, Chapters and leaves; the reason for it is, because the late Fire has consumed all those Hebrew books where I could have found them and though I might have made us of some private Libraries which are still preserved, yet I lacked a Book which I earnestly searched for amongst all the Booksellers in London and the friends I knew, and could not find it.
The psychological damage was also unfathomable. Christian authors had identified the year 1666 as the year the Messiah would come. Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel had referenced that belief in his letter to Oliver Cromwell which led to the Jews being readmitted to England. He wrote, “The opinions of many Christians and mine do concur herein, that we both believe that the restoring time of our Nation into their native country is very near at hand.”
Jews throughout Europe had been hearing about Shabbatai Tzvi who had proclaimed himself the messiah. His prophet, Nathan of Gaza, had proclaimed that 1666 would be the year the Messianic Age would begin, with Tzvi leading the Ten Lost Tribes back to Israel. But in February, Tzvi set out for Constantinople. Instead of the Sultan giving his crown to the messiah, Tzvi was arrested and imprisoned. On September 16, he appeared before Sultan Mehmed IV and converted to Islam. For Jews all over the world, this was the end of hope. For the Jews of London, coming so soon after the Great Fire, it must have been calamitous.
Yet, the fiery destruction of London led to many innovations and changes that improved the lives of all who lived in the capital.
Much like the third of the Three Little Pigs, when Londoners rebuilt the city, they used bricks and mortar to build their homes, instead of wood. This meant that the risk of fire in the future was greatly reduced.
The year after the fire, London introduced new fire regulations and building regulations. The first insurance companies began selling policies, encouraging people to build using non-flammable materials and maintaining private fire brigades. Ultimately, this led to the creation of the London Fire Brigade.
The massive destruction allowed London to be rebuilt into the city we know today – so much of it, including the new St. Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren. The tiny Jewish community, thankful to have survived the fire and the xenophobic hostility it caused, reportedly made a large donation to the reconstruction.
The Great Fire came a year after the Great Plague epidemic of 1665, which killed a sixth of London’s inhabitants. Not only did the fire burn down unsanitary housing, and the rats and fleas that spread the disease, but it caused thousands of people to leave the city permanently, leaving those remaining more spread out and less likely to spread disease.
Out of the destruction and ruin came a better, healthier, city with architecture that still draws tourists to this day.
In this week’s Torah portion we read about one of the greatest tragedies to ever befall the Jewish people – the construction and worship of the Golden Calf. The Torah (Exodus 32) related that the Israelites were afraid that Moses would never return from Mount Sinai, so they turned to Aharon the Priest, and asked him to build them a new leader. Just as they began dancing around the Calf in celebration, Moses returned, carrying the tablets with the Ten Commandments. On seeing the idolatry, he smashed the tablets, destroying God’s handiwork. Thousands of people were killed.
We commemorate this tragedy every year with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz. It changed the future of Jewish history. Without it, the Israelites would have become immortal, wearing their crowns from Mount Sinai (Talmud Shabbat 88a). If they hadn’t sinned, they would not have needed most of the Oral Law (Seforno Exodus 24:12). Had the Israelites not built the calf, the entire nation would have been on the level of priests (Mechilta Yitro 2). The Talmud (Sanhedrin 102a) says that every tragedy that befalls the Jewish people contains a fraction of the punishment for the Golden Calf.
Yet, the majority of people who joined in with the Calf had good intent. And because of that tragedy, we were able to become a people, shaping our own future.
Yalkut Reuveni says that the sin of the Golden Calf was similar to the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Just as they ate from the forbidden fruit and became mortal, so the Jews worshipped the Calf and lost their immortality. But just as Adam and Eve gained free choice through their sin, so too, the Israelites gained the power to chose freely after the Calf.
Sure, that free choice led to some terrible decisions, like the sin of the spies. But it also allowed for a flourishing nation, pushing the boundaries of the possible.
Smashing the tablets created the need for a sophisticated Oral Law. Without it, we would have no Mishna, no Talmud, none of the great rabbinic texts that shape our lives to this day. Without the Talmudic academies and the struggle to master the ancient texts, we would not be the people of the book in the way we are today.
But more fundamentally, if our ancestors had remained immortal, every subsequent generation would have served no purpose. The Talmud (Avoda Zara 5a) quotes Reish Lakish, who says:
Let us acknowledge the goodness of our ancestors. For if they had not sinned [with the Golden Calf], we would not have come into the world… Do not say ‘We would have come into the world’ but that it would be as if we had not come to the world.
Rashi there explains that since the people who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard the word of God would have lived forever, every subsequent generation would be unimportant and irrelevant.
The tragedy of the Golden Calf for the nation was enormous. We are still paying the price for the sin to this day. But like the Great Fire of London, out of the ashes came great opportunities. It allowed each of us as individuals to have value and importance, and to make an impact on the world. Instead of being trampled by the giants of Sinai, we stand on their shoulders and see even further.
My next class on WebYeshiva will be on March 13th and is entitled “The Seder 2023: Urchatz.” You can sign up on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.