Let it burn (Daf Yomi Shabbos 117)

“One may even employ artifice.”

I struggle with the image of standing beside a burning home and just letting it go up in ashes. And yet, we are told in this section of the Talmud that one must not extinguish a fire on Shabbat. One is allowed, however, to run inside the house and rescue food for three meals if the fire breaks out on Shabbat eve. If it breaks out on Shabbat morning, he is allowed to salvage food for two meals, or just food for one meal if the fire breaks out on Shabbat afternoon. In a reminder that one must feed his animals before himself, he can also rescue food for his animals.

The obvious question – why grab just enough for one or two or three meals? If one has risked the flames why not also rescue a few family heirlooms – perhaps a wedding album or your grandmother’s silver? We are told that this prohibition against rescuing more than what is needed to consume on Shabbat is in order to protect against the temptation to extinguish the flames. The reading says that “since a person is agitated about his property, if you permit him to move more, he will come to extinguish the fire.”  Presumably by allowing someone to rescue more food than he needs to feed his family and perhaps some treasured possessions, he may realize what is at stake and attempt to save his home.

It is asking a lot to require someone to stand aside and watch his home burn with everything he holds dear. I discovered in my research that homes that were built 2,000 years ago were made of stone and not as flammable as the wooden homes that came later. The homes had decent ventilation and were not packed with belongings and upholstered furniture like our homes today. The suggestion is that the fires were less dangerous than they are today, and one could simply return to his home after the flames died out, sweep out the soot and settle in again. Still, even when considering sturdy stone abodes, it is asking a lot of someone to stand by and watch his home, his safe place, his refuge from the world, burn.

I know the horror of experiencing fire firsthand. My childhood home burned down when I was eleven years old. I returned home from school one day to a burned shell. Our neighbor tried to put out the fire with his garden hose. It is human nature to put out a fire and seems incredibly harsh of the Rabbis to expect someone to resist this urge. I remember standing on the lawn in front of my burned-down home waiting for my mother to return home with the neighbor who became the family hero for his valiant efforts to extinguish the flames.

Our homes are our safe haven and at eleven years old the safe wall around my suburban life was threatened. What was left intact (there was not much) was soaked with the acrid smell that permeated the air. Almost every material item I had from my childhood – toys, artwork, books, clothes, souvenirs from travels – was destroyed. But my family was lucky. We all survived.  We must have had a guardian angel because our family dogs were at the groomers that day, or they might not have lived. All my possessions were destroyed, but I learned the value of life – animal and human – because we were all safe. But to ask someone to stand by idly and watch the property they have worked so hard for be engulfed in flames, is more than most can bear.

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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