Saving sacred texts (Daf Yomi Shabbos 115)

“That they are read.”

Today’s Daf Yomi deals with the question of what one may rescue from a fire on Shabbat and more broadly, the value of reading sacred texts in translation. The prohibition against putting out a fire or rescuing one’s belongings, except for a few essentials, is a difficult one to comprehend. We are hard-wired to extinguish fires so that their initial damage is contained and to rescue what we can of our lives from the flames. We are told that a sacred text and most notably a Torah, can be salvaged from the flames, but of course, this being the Talmud, there is a protracted discussion on what can be salvaged. And this being the Talmud, not everyone is in agreement.

A distinction is made between what is read in public – Torah and Prophets Scrolls – and those that are read in private – Writings Scrolls that are read when Torah study is suspended on Shabbat.  We are told that both categories are worthy of being rescued on Shabbat regardless of what language they are written in. Of course, there is some debate. Rav Huna says that scared writings written in translation must not be rescued from the flames on Shabbat while Rav Hisda disagrees and says one should run into the burning building and rescue the scrolls regardless of what language they are written in. The final decision appears to be that “With regard to all sacred writings, one may rescue them from the fire on Shabbat whether they are read in public or whether they are not read in public, even if they are written in any foreign language.”  They continue their debate on what scrolls require burial and what can be read and not read, with Rav Huna always taking the negative position.

The Rabbis are never content until all exigencies are explored, which is why there are so many books to the Talmud and it takes over 7 years to get through them. We are told that any item other than a sacred text, even an amulet with the name of God written on it, may not be rescued from a burning fire. The Rabbis explore if a scroll may be saved if it is written in Hebrew, but in an irregular ink, such as “yellow-tinged arsenic, or red paint, in gum, or in iron sulfate.”  The answer is yes – even a sacred text written in gum must be rescued on Shabbat from a fire.

The debate is an interesting one to someone like me, with rudimentary Hebrew skills at best, who is reading the Talmud in English. I know like reading poetry in translation, I may be gleaning the essence of the text but missing the sub-text and all the meaning in the Hebrew words themselves. This is especially true when mnemonics are mentioned in the text or a little while back with the discussion on the shape of the Hebrew letters. I am missing out on the sound and shape of the Hebrew language by reading the text in English.

I grew up in a Conservative synagogue where everything was in Hebrew. There were limited English translations and the services were not interactive like the ones I attend today. The amazing work that the Sefaria organization has accomplished through making the Jewish texts available online has fulfilled the mission of democratizing the sacred books and making them accessible to everyone. The Sefaria website says that “We are the people of the book” and it is through translation and unfettered online access that allows all of us, no matter where we live in the world, to say that it is so. By translating the sacred texts into English and making them available online, they are fit to be salvaged not just from flames, but for everyone who wants to enter into a dialog with them no matter where they live and what language they speak.

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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