Dealing with a Fire Emergency on Shabbos

Courtesy of Ohr Olam Mishnah Berurah


Question: May a fire burning out of control but is of no direct danger to human life be extinguished on Shabbos?

Discussion: In almost all situations, even if there is no direct threat to any human life, a fire burning out of control which cannot be easily and quickly contained may be extinguished on Shabbos. Even if there is only a small chance that the fire will not be able to be contained, something which is true of most fires, it may be extinguished on Shabbos. All Shabbos prohibitions, both min ha-Torah and miderabanan, may be overridden in order to extinguish a fire which can potentially get out of control and cannot easily and quickly be contained.

This was not always the case. In the times of Chazal and through the days of the early rishonim, there were severe limitations regarding extinguishing a fire on Shabbos. In those days, unless the fire was a direct threat to human life, it was forbidden to extinguish a fire on Shabbos. Not only was it forbidden to transgress min ha-Torah prohibitions, but even miderabanan prohibitions, such as a direct command to a non-Jew to extinguish the fire, were not permitted. In addition, Chazal placed severe limitations on removing food and clothes which were not necessary for Shabbos, since the Rabbis were concerned that while the removal of those items will be taking place one will become distracted and inadvertently extinguish the fire. Thus, they permitted only the barest minimum of food and clothes to be removed and the rest of the property was lost or consumed by the fire1.

But all that changed during the middle ages. Both the Beis Yosef and Rama write that since we reside among the non-Jewish population, we no longer have the option to allow a fire to continue burning, even when human life is not directly threatened. The basic rationale2 behind this ruling is based on the historical fact that when a fire is burning out of control, the non-Jewish population was keen on looting and pillaging. Since many Jews would not sit idly by as their home is being looted and will likely stand up to defend their property, the confrontation can quickly develop to a life-threatening situation. Thus, it was established by the halachic authorities at the time that all fires which cannot be quickly contained and may spiral out of control are permitted to be extinguished, and one should not delay in doing so. Even nowadays, when looting and pillaging is less likely3, the ruling remains firm both abroad4 and in Eretz Yisrael5.

Obviously, when human life is not being directly threatened or endangered6, or in the atypical case when the fire can be quickly contained, whatever can be done to minimize chillul Shabbos, should be done. If the fire, for instance, can be extinguished indirectly, e.g., placing tied bags or cups of water7 or wet towels around it, or by quickly asking a non-Jew to call the fire department, that should be done. But it is forbidden to be stringent in these matters. If any doubt whatsoever exists about the potential danger of the fire, then one must do whatever it takes, in the quickest way possible, to make sure that this does not happen.

Question: What preventive measures may be used if a candle is teetering and about to fall [on tablecloth or curtain, etc.] possibly igniting a fire that will cause significant monetary loss or damage?

Discussion: There are several preventive measures that may be taken, and we will list them here in order of halachic preference:

  1. If a non-Jew is available, quickly ask him or her to grab or catch the candle before it falls on to the tablecloth,8 or to place a vessel filled with water below the candle9. If a non-Jew is not available
  2. Quickly place an empty vessel underneath the falling candle10.
  3. Quickly but gently grab or catch the teetering candle11 before it lands [or spreads] on the tablecloth, being careful to avoid directly extinguishing the candle. Once the candle is in your hand, it may be gently placed on the floor or taken outside of the home where it would extinguish on its own. If it is too late to catch the candle
  4. Quickly fill paper or plastic cups with a beverage12 and place around the fallen candle.
  5. Quickly pour a beverage13 on the tablecloth around the fallen candle.
  6. If the fire has already spread and may spiral out of control, follow directions mentioned previously.

1. The restriction against removing unnecessary items from the house was placed only on the owner and his immediate family. Guests or friends were permitted to save whatever they can from the burning home. Similarly, neighbors who were concerned that the fire may spread to their own home, were permitted to save whatever they can from their home, as long as the goods are being carried to a place where it is permitted to be carried on Shabbos; see Mishnah Berurah 334:4 and Sha’ar ha-Tziyun 2. In addition, according to some opinions, it was even permitted for outsiders and neighbors to protect money and other muktzeh items by carrying them out of the house for safekeeping; see Mishnah Berurah 334:6.

2. An additional reason for leniency was in the way homes were being built in the middle ages. In earlier times, homes were built inside courtyards. But later, when homes were being built in proximity to public streets, a roaring fire would expose the unsuspecting public to falling sparks or embers; see Aruch ha-Shulchan 334:9.

3. In addition, although the threat of looting is less likely in the modern era, there are some factors that can make a fire in contemporary times even more dangerous than previously. As our homes are connected to combustible material such as open gas lines and exposed electric wires, it would take just a small spark to cause a real disaster; See Minchas Asher 1:27.

4. Oral ruling by Rav Y. Kamenetsky, quoted in Emes L’yaakov, O.C. 334, note 384, concerning the Jewish community of Monsey.

5. Oral ruling by Chazon Ish, quoted in Orchos Rabbeinu (vol. 1, pg. 164). See also Shoneh Halachos 334:36.

6. Note that even when a fire is contained there can be serious health implications due to smoke or soot.

7. O.C. 334:22.

8. Rama, O.C. 276:3.

9. Mishnah Berurah 265:16. This may be done by a minor child as well.

10. Based on Mishnah Berurah 266:27.

11. Although a lit candle is muktzeh as explained in Chapter 279, in this case the prohibition of muktzeh is waved because Chazal were concerned that the homeowner may panic and desecrate the Shabbos with an action which is forbidden min ha-Torah in order to save his valuable possessions; See Mishnah Berurah 334:6 for more details. In addition, moving the candle in this scenario may be permitted under the graf shel re’i principle, previously explained in Chapter 308.

12. Preferably, a beverage other than clean water should be used, to avoid any question of violating the melachah of melaben, but if only water is available, it may be used; see Chapter 302:9 for further details.

13. See previous footnote.