This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Spreading Like Wild Fire*

As I write these lines, the Calgary sky is surrealistically discoloured with ash and cinders from a series of intense conflagrations that have been consuming the forests of western Canada. A few weeks ago, I had occasion to view the smoldering haze that obscured the vistas of central British Columbia, and to gaze upon stark mountain peaks from which smoke was issuing in ways that made me half-expect to see a bearded prophet descend with stone tablets.

Our ancestors were acutely aware of the devastating potential of fire, and this reality permeates many aspects of Jewish law and lore.

The civil law of the Torah (Exodus 22:6) deals with the case of a person who starts a fire that subsequently spreads through thorns until it consumes a neighbour's property. In such instances, the person who caused the blaze must pay in full for all the damage that was caused.

The rabbis laboured to define what it is that makes fire unique among the various other agencies that can cause damage or destruction.

They noted that a basic characteristic of fire is its propensity to travel and spread from its point of origin. Although a flame may have been kindled within a person's private domain, it has the power to move to adjoining property. This sets fire apart from other causes of damage, such as a pit, which is entirely inanimate; or an animal, whose ability to cause harm is compounded by some measure of willfulness.

Another distinctive feature of the combustion process is that it can only succeed when there is a combination of factors, such as fuel and oxygen, feeding the fire. The Mishnah discusses a scenario where one person ignited the initial flame, but another supplied the fuel that allowed it to spread. Which of the two is considered legally culpable for the ensuing damages?

The rabbis concluded that the responsibility rests with the second person, since neither the flame without the tinder, nor the tinder without flame, is capable of causing destruction alone. Therefore, only the individual who combined the two components must pay restitution.

Some of the sages disputed whether fire should be treated as if it were as an extension of the perpetrator's body. or as their property. On the one hand, a flame has no intrinsic value, so that it does not really qualify as "property." On the other hand, it can spread independently of the person's control, and therefore is not a straightforward extension of one's body or actions.

Talmudic law also took into account that some situations are so unpredictable that the initiator of the conflagration cannot reasonably be held responsible for them. It the person took reasonable precautions against the spread of the flame, but it nonetheless succeeded in causing damage, then this is deemed an act of God for which there is no legal recourse.

Thus, if a safe distance was maintained between the fire and the victim's property line, then the person who kindled the flame is not held responsible when it unexpectedly jumped a wall or a stream to reach the neighbour's property.

Similarly, in determining the culpability of the person who ignited the fire, the Talmud makes a fundamental distinction between flames that are fanned by ordinary or extraordinary winds.

Consideration for the unpredictable results of a blaze also comes into play when assessing the extent of loss that was caused by the fire. According to an established principle of Jewish law, a person who has caused a fire is exempt from paying for valuables that would not normally have been stored in the place that was burned down; e.g., if the owner had buried a chest of precious jewels in a cornfield or barn.

The awesome destructive might of fire made it a apt symbol for other forms of destruction, and the ancient Jewish prophets and sages employed this image metaphorically to portray the manifestation of divine wrath against wicked nations.

In describing the defeat of the Egyptians at the Red Sea, the Song of Moses (Exodus 15:7) states "thou sent forth thy wrath, which consumed them as stubble."

The rabbis paid careful attention to the details of this analogy. What is it about stubble that makes it a more appropriate metaphor than wood or other flammable materials?

They pointed out that the crackle of burning stubble can be heard from long distances, just like the laments of the Egyptians. Moreover, the comparison with burned stubble underscores the completeness of the Egyptian defeat; as distinct from wood, which leaves behind substantial amounts of ash or residue.

The moral depravity and worthlessness of the Egyptians comes across when we observe that the Bible figuratively compares the destruction of other nations to the felling of cedars or other lofty trees, rather than to lowly stubble.

Jewish tradition has always regarded the liberation from Egypt as a model for the future redemption; and the prospect of an all-consuming flame was particularly suitable for describing the anticipated fates of evil empires in the messianic future. This metaphor was employed to good advantage by the prophet Obadiah to describe the divine retribution that will befall Edom/Esau (1:18): "And the house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau for stubble, and they shall kindle in them."

The sages of the Midrash, for whom Esau symbolized the despised Roman Empire, interpreted Obadiah's metaphor in terms of familiar situations in a village marketplace. A blacksmith and a goldsmith (Jacob and Joseph) were initially distressed at the sight of heaps of thorns (Edomites) being brought into the town. However, an insightful bystander reminded them that the eyesore could be eliminated instantly by a few opportune sparks from their forges.

In the same way (concludes the midrashic preacher), the Almighty reassures Jacob's descendants that the overwhelming might of Rome is no more than a glorified heap of thorns or stubble that will be obliterated in a moment when the time arrives for Israel's redemption.

The esoteric traditions of the Kabbalah took the imagery of fire to bold new heights, attaching to it a cosmic spiritual dimension.

As described by the pseudonymous author of the Ra'ya Meheimana(Spain, 13th-14th century), the basic categories of damages in the Torah's system of civil law--ox, pit, fire and human--should be understood allegorically as a demonic quartet of metaphysical evil, constituting a negative counterparts of the four angelic creatures of Ezekiel's holy chariot.

In that gruesome foursome, fire represented the queen of the malevolent demons, the infamous Lilith. She (with the help of her partner Samael) was responsible for the burning of our holy Temple and its altar, leading to the cessation of divine worship, and the exile of the divine presence, the Shekhinah.

In this brief sampling, we have seen how Jewish scholars have tried to understand fire from diverse perspectives: as an issue in civil law, as a metaphor for an eschatological cataclysm, and as mystical allegory of metaphysical evil.

In spite of all the differences between them, each of these approaches reflects in its own way the awe and wonder that are inspired by this mysterious and formidable force of nature.

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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