02. Mekhabeh

On Yom Tov, a fire may be extinguished (kibui) only for the needs of okhel nefesh. Otherwise, it is forbidden. Even if all of one’s possessions are going up in flames, extinguishing the fire is prohibited as long as there is no danger to human life. Lowering a flame is also prohibited when there is no tzorekh okhel nefesh, as this of necessity involves extinguishing part of the flame (Beitza 22a; SA 514:1-2; Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 16:6-7).

In contrast, extinguishing a flame as part of food preparation is permitted. Therefore, raw meat may be placed upon coals, even though the juices dripping from the meat will initially put out part of the flame (Shabbat 34b; SA 511:4). Spices may also be put on the coals in order to infuse fruit with their flavor, even though initially the spices will put out part of the flame. Similarly, the flame under a pot of food may be turned down if it is so high that the food in the pot will burn. However, if a lower flame is available, the pot should be transferred there, thus avoiding unnecessary kibui.[2]

Let us say a fire is threatening to burn down one’s home, where he is planning to eat his Yom Tov meals. Alternatively, the fire is threatening to ruin the crockery and cutlery with which he is planning to eat the meals. May it be extinguished? Poskim disagree. Some prohibit extinguishing the fire, as doing so does not directly affect the food (Rif; Rambam; SA 514:1). Others permit it, maintaining that the permission to perform melakha for okhel nefesh includes the permission to protect the place in which one will eat and the crockery and cutlery with which one will eat. Therefore, as long as one does not have anywhere else convenient to eat besides his home, he may put out a fire which is about to burn it down. Similarly, if he cannot lay hands on other crockery and cutlery with which to eat, he may extinguish the fire which is about to ruin them (Mordechai; Ran; Rema 514:1; MB ad loc. 8). Since this is a disagreement pertaining to a rabbinic law, the lenient opinion may be relied upon when necessary.

[2]. The Gemara explains that it is permissible to extinguish a flame le-tzorekh okhel nefesh (Shabbat 134b; Beitza 23a and 32b). However, in Beitza 22a a disagreement is recorded between R. Yehuda and other Sages regarding the permissibility of extinguishing a burning branch that is threatening to burn food (or burn down a house). The Gemara there follows the view of the Sages that it is forbidden to extinguish the fire. This presents us with a difficulty. Why would it be forbidden to extinguish the fire under the food? Isn’t this a classic case of tzorekh okhel nefesh? Some answer that the Sages prohibited extinguishing the fire in order to save the house, but would agree that the fire may be extinguished to save the food (R. Sherira Gaon; Rid; Raavya; Mordechai; Yam Shel Shlomo; and many more). Others say that when the Gemara prohibits putting out the fire, it is talking about a case of an empty pot. However, if there is food in the pot that will burn, they would agree that extinguishing the flame is permitted (Tosafot and Ramban; AHS and Shtei Ha-leḥem understand Rif, Rambam, and SA 514:1 to agree as well). A third view maintains that extinguishing a flame is permitted only in a case where it happens as part of the cooking process, such as when meat is placed on coals and the juices from the meat put out part of the flame. However, extinguishing a flame in order to protect food from burning is not considered tzorekh okhel nefesh and is prohibited (Ra’ah; several Aḥaronim and MB 514:4 understand Rif, Rambam, and SA to agree as well). In practice, extinguishing a flame in order to prevent food from burning is permitted. This is the opinion of the majority of Rishonim; several Aḥaronim understand Rif, Rambam, and SA to agree as well. Furthermore, even those who prohibit extinguishing the flame would agree in this case that the prohibition is only rabbinic, because the person’s intention is not to produce coals (see Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 9:6).

If an existing flame is too high and the food is likely to burn, but a weaker flame is available to which it can be transferred, the food must be moved there to avoid lowering the flame unnecessarily (Rosh; Rema 514:1). If no weaker flame is available, some say that it is better to light a new fire rather than to lower the existing one (MA 514:3; MB ad loc. 6). Others maintain that it is better to turn down the existing flame (Igrot Moshe, OḤ 4:103; Yabi’a Omer 1:31:12). In practice, this position would seem to be correct, for two reasons. First, the extinguishing here is le-tzorekh okhel nefesh, and second, the uncertainty is on a rabbinic level, and the principle is that we are lenient in such cases. See Harḥavot.

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