Penny Cagan

If a fire is extinguished, it is extinguished (Daf Yomi Shabbos 120)

“If the fire is extinguished, it is extinguished.”

I know this is probably a irreverent suggestion but sometimes I think that these daily Daf Yomi readings would benefit from a good editor who could better structure the text and do a consistency check. One day we are told that intentions matter, and the next we are told there are work-arounds. One day we are told that one may only rescue food enough to last through Shabbat if a fire breaks out, and the next we are told that one can rescue enough bread to feed one-hundred people along with wine and a large fig cake. One day we are told that one can only rescue sacred texts from a fire on Shabbat and a limited quantity of food and the next we are told that one can rescue up to eighteen pieces of clothing.

Today we learn that one can run into a burning house and rescue a basket full of bread, a round cake of dried figs and a barrel full of wine. And an invitation can be extended to the neighbors to run in and grab what they can from the burning flames. The vision I had from the previous reading of standing outside watching one’s home burn without the ability to rescue precious possessions is not completely accurate. There is a work-around: one can carry an infinite amount of bread, a large fig cake and a barrel of wine into a courtyard, along with all the utensils he can gather for a meal. He can also pile all of this into a cloak and carry it away, even if no protective eruv has been established. And the neighbors who have assisted with carrying out these items from the house can look to the homeowner for renumeration when they return his possessions. We are told that it is alright for them to accept payment, because they are “pious” people who would not keep what does not belong to them.

And here is the really interesting work-around: one can rescue up to eighteen pieces of clothes and accessories. We are told that one can continue rescuing these garments from the burning house by going in and putting on a layer, removing the layer outside, and going back in for another garment and then another. The risk the homeowner is taking through the multiple re-entries into his burning home is not discussed. We are provided with a list of what he can salvage that describes a capsule wardrobe, including accessories: a cloak, cape, broad garment worn on one’s shoulders,  large hollow belt worn over the clothes,  wide linen garment, robe worn against the skin,  robe wrapped above,  kerchief on one’s head,  two straps, i.e., belts, and two shoes, two socks, two tall boots, a belt around one’s loins over the robe, a hat on one’s head, and a scarf around one’s neck.

We are apprised of other work arounds, such as spreading a moist goat’s hide over a box, a chest or a closet that caught fire. If one side of a garment catches fire, one can place water on the other side and “if the fire is extinguished, it is extinguished.”  One may also stretch the garment out and cover himself with it (which sounds like a bad idea if it is in flames), but “if the garment is extinguished, it is extinguished.”  We are told that “it is prohibited to actually pour water, but one may perform a permitted act that will incidentally extinguish.  If one shakes a board with a candle on top and the candle falls and “if the fire is extinguished, it is extinguished.”  If a candle is behind a door and one opens and closes the door, “if the fire is extinguished, it is extinguished.”

Today is July 4th, and unlike any Independence Day I have lived through. There are no fireworks, dinners out with friends, visits with family, trips to the beach, or street fairs. What those of us who have lived through the worse of the pandemic have is a sense of community and doing the right thing for each other.  We worked together in New York City to extinguish the fire. Like the neighbors who run into a burning house to help save a homeowner’s food and clothes (and I like to think they do not do it for any type of renumeration but out of a sense of community), we have a fire to put out in the United States of America. What is heart-breaking is that if the rest of the country had pulled together united in the effort to put out the flames, the outcome could have been very different outside of New York. What it takes is for people to get over what-ever hang-ups they have and wear a damn mask and maintain social distancing. It’s simple and low-tech and New York City proved that it can work. And as the Talmud often says, it is not difficult.

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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