Orthodox Jew won’t call fire department due to Sabbath!

This past weekend, in a religious enclave in upstate New York, a man trying to dim the light so his child could sleep placed a pillow on top of a lamp. Big mistake!

The pillow started to smolder, and caused the mattress to start smoldering as well. Trying to prevent a tragedy but not wishing to violate the Sabbath, the man dragged the mattress out of the house where the fresh oxygen caused the smoldering mattress to burst into flame.

A fire alarm alerted the Fire Department who came and extinguished the fire and prevented it from spreading. When asked why he didn’t call 911, the man explained that it was the Shabbat and he couldn’t use the phone!

If you think the mattress was hot, you should have seen the blogosphere reacting to this story. People left and “write” were commenting how he was so foolish to let the Sabbath stop him. Others said that it was obvious that even the Torah allows you to call 911 to save a life, and others lamented this guy’s lack of common sense.

I agree. The Torah does provide for dealing with emergencies, and when human life is at risk, one is to do whatever is necessary to save it.

That said, it’s not as cut and dried as people make it out to be. There are differing opinions on what one may do, and how he may do it. The fact that “common sense” says you ignore the Torah doesn’t fly.

The Torah is aware of the sanctity of human life much more so than most humans. Unfortunately, all too often we make the mistake of thinking that Torah is a tool to help us make decisions when we can’t do it on our own. When our human intellect CAN guide us though, we don’t need it.  It’s quite the contrary.

Our own intellect is not supposed to be the first resort. We’re supposed to see what G-d commanded us. He made the world and knows how it works. The Torah is His instruction manual or user guide for this world.

The Torah gives us answers and unfortunately this fellow didn’t have all of them. He did what he thought was reasonable under the circumstances, and did not go running to a rabbi to ask a question as some people sarcastically suggested.

What strikes me, though, is how amazing this man is to have the presence of mind to think: “Wait! There’s a higher law than my own common sense and a reason for everything in the Torah. There’s no risk to life here, so I’ll handle it within the guidelines of Shabbos.”

Yes, there should be better education on what to do in emergency situations, but this man is far from a fool.

Marveling at someone’s ability to subjugate his ego and acknowledge G-d’s mastery is the story I’ll take from this episode. Maybe some of you will too.

About the Author
Growing up a rabbi's son, Jonathan Gewirtz moved around and met people from all walks of life. A columnist and speechwriter, he draws on his experiences for his writing. As the scion of a Rabbinic family, he is passionate about the power of words and the greatness inherent in each of us.
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