It did not take long for the all-knowing, selfenthroned prophets of Jerusalem to
let us know exactly why the fire has consumed some 7,000 acres of forest and
taken the lives of 42 people – Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Shas, has
declared in the name of the Talmud that an outbreak of fire only happens in a
place where Shabbat is desecrated. In the same lesson, delivered this past
Saturday night while the fire was still raging and firefighters were continuing
to risk their lives to prevent it from reaching into Haifa and other nearby
communities, he called upon everyone to “study Torah, engage in good deeds,
repent, observe Shabbat, and know the entire Halacha, and thanks to this God
will provide a full recovery.”
A haredi newspaper (Hamevaser) carried the
story and wrote that an investigating committee would probably be set up, but
said we must not forget that there are things beyond human control. The
editorial noted that in legal language it is known as force majeure, and that
“we know there is a directing force from above without whom it is impossible to
even lift a finger here below.
The heavens caused the events and lead
them to such disastrous levels,” the editorial claimed.
Why is it that
when faced with catastrophe many Torah scholars set aside their knowledge and
study of halakhah, which I would assume fills up the majority of their study
time, and resort to feigning some sort of pseudo-prophetic knowledge based on
Talmudic or midrashic homiletics (often cited completely out of context!)? In
his lesson to his his students, Yosef was citing the following passage from the
Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 119b: Rav Judah son of Rav Samuel said in Rav’s name:
An [outbreak of] fire occurs only in a place where there is desecration of the
Sabbath, for it is said, “But if ye will not hearken unto me to hallow the
Sabbath day and not to bear a burden ... then will I kindle a fire in the gates
thereof, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be
quenched” (Jeremiah 17:27).
A closer look at this passage from Jeremiah
in its context makes it clear that the prophet was castigating the Jews of
Jerusalem for their lax approach to observance of Shabbat, and promising them
that if they did not change their ways, Jerusalem, its gates and its palaces
would be destroyed – this is just one small section of a book filled with
warnings against the people living in the years leading up to the destruction of
Jerusalem and the First Temple at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BCE. This
is not an eternal catch-all prophecy and should not be read as such.
interpretation offered in Rav’s name and cited here serves to introduce a full
page of theories as to why the First Temple was destroyed, each theory
presenting an interpretive reading of a different biblical passage. It is
completely inappropriate to apply this teaching of Rav to the Carmel forest
WHEN A fire is started and spreads to thorns, so that stacked,
standing, or growing grain is consumed, he who started the fire must make
restitution. (Exodus 21:5) The catastrophic fires in the North should direct us
rather to an important practical discussion that begins with the verse from the
Torah cited above, and moves onto the pages of a different tractate of
The Talmud records a discussion about the liability of one who
lights a fire that gets out of control causing damage to another‘s property.
Rabbi Yohanan states that isho mishum chitzo – one’s fire is like his arrow
(Baba Kama 22a). He means to say that lighting a fire that is caught up by the
wind and spreads to cause heavy destruction is the equivalent of pulling back a
bow, taking aim and shooting an arrow; in both cases the perpetrator is
responsible for all the damage caused by his actions.
And even though in
the case of the raging inferno, we might want to say that it was exacerbated by
heavy winds, nonetheless the person who struck the match is considered to be
responsible for all the damage done, and if death is involved, according to some
opinions, he is even to be considered a murderer for lighting the match
irresponsibly. While a differing opinion is recorded as well, ultimately Halacha
follows the opinion of Rabbi Yohanan.
Shame on all those who would be so
smug and selfrighteous to remove the ultimate blame from those human beings who
lit the fire. How dare they have the brazen nerve to place the responsibility
for this national catastrophe squarely on the shoulders of God. How absolutely
reckless and irreverent! When is a fire the work of the heavens? Rambam, when
citing the Halacha writes the following: If one were to light a fire in on his
own property, he needs to distance it from the boundary to ensure that the fire
not pass over to his neighbor’s field, and how much that distance is will be
determined relative to the height of the flame he lights. And if he does not
distance the fire as necessary and the fire passes over and causes damage, he is
culpable for paying for the full damages caused. If he did take proper
precautions by distancing the fire and nonetheless it passed over and caused
damage, then he is exempt from payment for that is a blow from the heavens (Laws
of Monetary Damages, 14:2).
In other words, negligence, and all the more
so arson, is not a blow from the heavens, it is not the hand of
ACCORDING TO Jewish law, the issue here is the question of what
combination of human error is responsible for this tragedy, and how can it be
prevented in the future.
Was it arson? Was it negligence? Who was
responsible? If there is any soul-searching to do, it will be related to the
question of how a country so committed to forestation of the barren land can be
so ill-prepared for forest fires.(You can’t have it both ways.) Lessons will be
learned, changes will most definitely be made.
All of the
prophet-wanna-be’s would do well to go back and review the beginning of the
first tractate of the Babylonian Talmud where it is written: Rav Hiyya son of
Ammi said in the name of Ulla: “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, the
Holy One, blessed be He, has nothing in this world but the four cubits of
Halacha” (Brachot 8b).
God’s interaction in our world today is manifest
as an extension of our application of the Torah that He gave to us. Ours is to
study its teachings and apply its wisdom to our behaviors and interactions, not
to attempt to interpret current events as the manifestations of God’s anger or
disappointment. We know what we need to do, and we will suffer the natural
consequences of our actions should we choose to do otherwise.
Yohanan is also quoted as saying, “Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has
been taken from prophets and given to fools and children” (Baba Batra
We would do well to stick to what we know and stop looking for
messages in bottles.
The writer is the author of
Where’s My Miracle,
Exploring Jewish Traditions for Dealing with Tragedy.
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