16 – Mav’ir and Mekhabeh

01. The Melakha of Hav’ara

The Torah states: “But the seventh day is Shabbat of the Lord your God; you shall not do any melakha” (Shemot 20:9). The Sages explain that the intent of this verse is to forbid all 39 melakhot that were instrumental in erecting the Mishkan. One of these melakhot is Hav’ara (kindling a fire), which was necessary to prepare dyes for the Mishkan’s curtains. Nevertheless, the Torah explicitly mentions the prohibition of Hav’ara: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on Shabbat” (Shemot 35:3). The Sages ask why it was necessary for the Torah to single out Hav’ara. R. Natan explains that the Torah was using one melakha to serve as an example, to teach us that while all 39 prohibited melakhot are derived from one verse (“You shall not do any melakha”), nevertheless each and every melakha is an independent prohibition. Therefore, if one unknowingly performs multiple melakhot, he must bring a sin offering for each one of them (Shabbat 70a).

The awesome power of fire allows man to rule over the forces of nature and harness them in his service. Through the use of fire, people created metal tools, improved food, and later created powerful machines. Perhaps this is why Hav’ara was chosen out of all the melakhot to express man’s tremendous ability to improve the world. However, on Shabbat every Jew must rest and rise above all creative activity. We must remember our Creator who took us out of Egypt, and we must enjoy Shabbat via Torah study and festive meals.

At first glance, there is a basic question about the melakha of Hav’ara. We have a ruling: “All destructive acts are exempt [by Torah law, but liable rabbinically]” (Shabbat 105b). Therefore, if one tore an item of clothing or broke a utensil, he is not obligated to bring a sin offering. To be sure, he transgresses rabbinically, but not by Torah law. In light of this, and given that burning an item generally ruins it, why is lighting a fire on Shabbat considered a transgression of a Torah prohibition? The answer is that any time the positive elements provided by the fire (heating or lighting one’s home) outweigh the loss of the burned item, it is classified as a constructive rather than a destructive act (MT 12:1; see Kesef Mishneh).

02. The Laws of Hav’ara

One who lights a fire of any size that meets some need violates a Torah prohibition. It makes no difference whether he starts the fire by rubbing stones together, using a magnifying glass to focus the sun’s rays on straw, lighting a match, or turning on the electricity. It also does not matter if the fire is fueled by oil, kerosene, or electricity. Anytime one intends to start a fire and succeeds in doing so, he transgresses a Torah prohibition.

However, one who merely causes sparks to be released does not violate Torah law. Furthermore, if the sparks were released unintentionally, there is no prohibition at all. Therefore, one may wear woolen or synthetic clothes, even though sometimes sparks are released when putting them on or taking them off. Since these sparks are released unintentionally and to no purpose, there is no prohibition (SSK 15:76; Yeĥaveh Da’at 2:46).

Just as it is prohibited by Torah law to kindle a new fire, it is also prohibited by Torah law to increase a pre-existing flame. The law on Yom Tov is different; while one may not kindle a new fire then either, one may turn up an existing flame. On Shabbat, however, one may not even raise a flame. For example, one may not increase the flame on a gas burner by turning the knob controlling the gas flow. Likewise, one may not increase the flow of kerosene to a heater in order to raise the flame or add oil to a burning lamp on Shabbat (Beitza 22a).

Similarly, one may not stoke coals, since this intensifies the fire (Kereitot 20a). Likewise, one may not open the door of a wood-fired oven because doing so allows air to enter the oven and fan the embers, thus increasing the fire (MB 259:21). If the oven door is already open, or there is a fire in an enclosed area (such as a fireplace), one may not open a window or door facing the fire, because a strong wind may enter and fan the flames. If there is no breeze, one may open the door or window (SA 277:2).

While an oil lamp is on a table, one must try to avoid shaking the table, because the oil may move closer to the wick and increase the flame, a violation of Hav’ara. However, if it is a wax candle on the table, or if the oil lamp has a floating wick, he does not need to worry that shaking the table will cause the flame to increase (MB 277:18).

03. Reading by Candlelight

The Sages ordained that one may not read by the light of an oil lamp on Shabbat, lest the flame become dim and the reader absent-mindedly tip the lamp so that more oil reaches the wick, thus transgressing the Torah prohibition of Hav’ara. To be sure, the Sages also ordained the kindling of Shabbat lamps, but this serves a different purpose. Shabbat candles are meant to provide light for the meal, not for careful examination of texts, and to allow one to walk around in his home without bumping into furniture. In contrast, the Sages forbade doing things that require careful examination by lamplight, out of concern that in such a case one might end up tipping the lamp in order to see better. One who wishes to study by the light of an oil lamp should ask a friend to keep him company, to ensure that he will not tilt it. Alternatively, he may learn together with a friend so that they can look out for each other (Shabbat 11a; SA 275:1-3).

Many poskim maintain that a lone individual may read by the light of a wax or paraffin candle because there is no concern that he will tilt the candle. Unlike an oil lamp, where the point of tilting is to move oil up the wick to the flame, the wax in a candle is attached to the wick and already close to the flame, so tilting would serve no purpose. Similarly, there is no concern that one might come to adjust the wick, since candles burn well on their own, and there is no need to adjust them at all once they are lit (MB 275:4; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 275:11).

An individual may study by the light of an electric lamp, even if only one of two bulbs in the lamp is turned on, and even when the intensity of the light can be adjusted by means of a dimmer; the ordinance regarding oil lamps was because of concern that if the light grew dim, one might tilt the lamp to restore the light. There was no concern that one might light an additional lamp or add oil to an existing one. Since electric lights do not grow dim, we are not concerned that one might turn on an additional light or turn up an existing one. Nevertheless, le-khatĥila it is advisable to cover the dimmer knob with a note that says “Shabbat” so that no one will accidentally adjust the light (SSK 13:37; Yeĥaveh Da’at 6:20).

04. Shabbat Candles

While a candle is burning at home, one must be careful not to open a window or door facing it, as the wind may blow out the flame. Even if the wind outside is currently too weak to put out a candle, one still may not open a window, since it might happen that at the very moment when the window is opened, the wind will become stronger and blow out the candle. If this happens, it would mean that the act of opening the window blew out the candle. When there is no wind whatsoever, some permit opening the window, while others forbid it. In a case of necessity, such as when it is hot inside the room, one may follow the lenient position, and the window may be opened (MB 277:3).

One may open a window or door if even a strong wind would be unable to extinguish the candle; for example, if the candle is at a great distance from the window or door, or if the window is at such an angle that very little wind comes through it. Even if the wind is likely to affect the flame and cause it to flicker, as long as it is not powerful enough to blow it out, one may open the door or window (SA 277:1; Menuĥat Ahava 3:26 n. 6).

If Shabbat candles were lit in front of an open window and then the wind started blowing, the window may be closed in order to protect the flame. By closing the window, one is not acting directly on the flame itself; one is merely preventing the wind from blowing it out (Rema 277:1).

Similarly, one may close a door in a place where a fire is burning (such as a room with a fireplace), even if the wind coming in is blowing on the coals and fanning the flame, and closing the door will weaken the fire. Closing the door is not considered an act of extinguishing, since it merely prevents more wind from entering and feeding the flame (SA 277:2). In contrast, if the fire is fueled by gas or kerosene, one may not turn down the flow of the fuel. This truly qualifies as extinguishing, since one is acting directly on the fuel itself (SA 265:1).[1]

[1]. Beitza 22a states: “One who adds oil to a lamp is liable on account of Mav’ir, and one who takes some away is liable on account of Mekhabeh.” According to Tosafot, the reason one is liable for removing oil is that when he does this, the flame is immediately weakened. In contrast, if adding or removing oil has an effect only after a while, this is considered grama; one is not extinguishing a flame but only causing a flame to be extinguished indirectly. However, according to Rosh (Beitza 2:17), even if adding or removing oil does not have an immediate impact, since ultimately it will cause the lamp to stay lit for a longer or shorter amount of time, it is considered Mav’ir and Mekhabeh by Torah law. In his opinion, grama only applies in a case where the action is not done directly to the item in question. An example of this would be filling pitchers with water that will burst when a fire reaches them, thereby releasing the water and extinguishing the fire. However, in our case, one is acting on the fuel itself, directly changing the amount of time the fire will stay lit. It follows that if one adds kerosene to an oven or oil to a lamp, and the strength of the fire immediately increases, all agree that he has transgressed a Torah prohibition. However, if the fire does not show the effect of his actions immediately, but will ultimately stay lit for longer, according to Rosh this is prohibited by Torah law, whereas according to Tosafot the prohibition is rabbinic.

05. The Melakha of Mekhabeh and the Meaning of Melakha She-eina Tzerikha Le-gufah

Extinguishing a fire in order to produce charcoal is one of the 39 melakhot prohibited on Shabbat. In the Mishkan they would turn wood into charcoal by setting fire to wood and then extinguishing it. They would then use this charcoal to build a steady and long-lasting fire for preparing the dyes used to color the curtains in the Mishkan. Similarly, if one extinguishes the flame of a candle so that its wick will light more easily later on, he transgresses a Torah prohibition.

What about one who extinguishes a fire not because he wants the charcoal, but because he wants to conserve fuel, or because the light produced by the flame is bothering him? In other words, he is not essentially interested in putting out the fire; he simply does not want the candle to keep burning. The Tanna’im disagree about this. According to R. Shimon, since this is a melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufah (a melakha that is not needed for its own sake) it is only prohibited rabbinically. However, according to R. Yehuda, even if one’s objective is not the performance of the melakha itself, since he does in fact intend to extinguish the flame, he has performed a melakha and violated Torah law (Shabbat 31b and 93b).

Practically speaking, Rambam maintains that a melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufah is prohibited by Torah law (MT 1:7), while according to most Rishonim it is rabbinically prohibited (R. Hai Gaon, Rabbeinu Ĥananel, Ha-ma’or, Ramban, and others; see also SA 334:27 and MB ad loc. 85). Since the only difference between a melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufah and a regular melakha is the intention behind it, performing a melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufah is considered more severe than violating a standard rabbinic prohibition. (See above 9:6.)

06. Fire that Causes Property Damage

If a fire breaks out on Shabbat, the first question that must be addressed is whether it presents a danger to human life. If it does, there is a mitzva to do whatever is necessary to extinguish it. However, if it is clear that there is no danger to human life, then even if the fire may cause extensive property damage, as is the case when an entire house goes up in flames, one may not put it out, because monetary loss does not override Shabbat.

Furthermore, the Sages prohibited moving items from a burning house to the street or courtyard even when there is an eruv. Their concern was that people might be so panicked about saving their property that they may either put out the fire or carry objects from a private domain to a public domain, thereby violating the melakha of Hotza’ah. Only food, clothing, and receptacles/implements needed for that Shabbat may be removed from a burning home (assuming it is within the eruv). If there is a large receptacle in the home, one may fill it with food even if it is more than will be needed for that Shabbat, as long as it can be carried out of the home in one trip. The same principle applies to clothing: as long as one is wearing them as he leaves the house, he may save many items of clothing, even more than are necessary for that Shabbat. This prohibition only applies to moving things into a shared courtyard; but one may salvage any quantity of food and non-muktzeh objects into a private yard where an eruv is not required, or into another apartment in the same building where there is an eruv (SA 334:11, MB ad loc. 28).[2]

Just as a homeowner may save items that he needs for Shabbat, he may also tell his neighbors that they can take whatever they need. Each neighbor can then take food for himself for Shabbat and put on as many items of clothing as he can. After Shabbat, the custom of the pious is to return the salvaged clothing and items to the original owner (SA 334:9; SSK 41:3-13).

The poskim disagree about whether one may salvage money and valuables that are not necessary for Shabbat from a burning building. One who is lenient has an opinion on which to rely. However, this is all on condition that he not transgress a Torah prohibition. If, in order to salvage his money, he would need to carry it from a private domain to a public domain, thus violating Torah law, he may not do so. However, he may carry the money out with a shinui, as this is only rabbinically prohibited (SA 334:2; Taz; see MB ad loc. 4-5, SHT ad loc. 3, and BHL s.v. “ve-yesh”).

Residents of neighboring buildings may remove everything they own from their homes. As long as the fire has not yet spread to their homes, we can assume that they are not so panicked, and so we are not worried that they will end up putting out the fire (SA 334:1).

Although a Jew may not extinguish the fire, he may hint to a non-Jew to do so. For example, he may say: “Whoever extinguishes this fire will not lose out.” Or he could call to the non-Jew urgently and tell him that a fire has broken out and that it is forbidden for a Jew to put it out. The non-Jew will then figure out on his own that the Jew wants him to put out the fire, and perhaps will even pay him for doing so (SA 334:26).

Similarly, one may indirectly cause the fire to go out, since according to Torah law it is only acting directly that is forbidden. Normally the Sages forbid causing melakha to be done indirectly, but in a case of loss, grama is permitted. Therefore, if one side of a cabinet catches fire, one may cover the other side with wet rags so that the fire will go out when it reaches them. Similarly, one may place bags full of water on a spot where the fire has not yet reached, so that they will burst open and extinguish the fire when it reaches them (SA 334:22). One may also pour water on a spot that is not burning, as long as it is far enough away from the fire that the water will only reach the fire and begin extinguishing it after a while (See SA 334:24; SSK 41:16).

[2]. According to Rambam and those who follow his approach, who maintain that performing a melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufah is prohibited by Torah law, it is clear that there is no way to permit putting out a fire to save one’s possessions. It is also obvious why the Sages ordained that one may not save more than what is necessary for Shabbat. However, according to most poskim, who maintain that a melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufah is only rabbinically prohibited, why does this rabbinic prohibition apply even in a case where following it would lead to a massive loss? After all, the Sages permitted stamping on the grass clogging up a pipe in order to prevent a loss (Ketubot 60a; SA 336:9). Even though many maintain that fixing the pipe would be prohibited by Torah law, the Sages permitted fixing it with a shinui to prevent a loss (Livyat Ĥen §103). Similarly, they were lenient in allowing one to carry valuable possessions into a public thoroughfare with a shinui to prevent their possible theft (Rema 301:33). Some even permit moving muktzeh objects in order to save possessions from fire or theft (SA 334:2). So why didn’t the Sages allow one to put out a fire in order to save all of his possessions?It would seem that the answer is that, as Ran writes (on Rif, 61a, s.v. “u-vimkom”), a melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufah is more severe than other rabbinic prohibitions. Ran suggests that since performing a melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufah looks the same as performing an act prohibited by Torah law, and only the intent differs, the Sages were concerned that people would be unable to distinguish between the two and would end up being lenient even with Torah prohibitions. Therefore, the Sages forbade putting out a fire even in the case of a melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufah. A similar approach appears in Ĥayei Adam 46:1 and BHL §278 at the end of s.v. “mutar.” (A parallel idea appears in the laws of bein ha-shmashot, as explained in MB 342:1.) It also may be that because having a fire in one’s home can make one extremely distressed, one who is worried about his possessions might perform several melakhot in his distressed state. Because of this, the Sages felt a need to reinforce the observance of the melakhot and did not permit even rabbinic transgressions. They allowed rescuing possessions only under very limited circumstances, so as to eliminate the concern that it would cause people to transgress other prohibitions as well.

R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, cited in SSK ch. 41 n. 8, wonders why we do not seem to be concerned about the emotional state of the homeowner and his family, who might lose their minds upon seeing their home and possessions going up in flames. In fact, it is possible for one to die or to go insane as a result of this kind of trauma. Elsewhere in SSK (ch. 32 n. 83), R. Auerbach points out that some allow the transgression of Torah prohibitions to protect one’s mental and emotional health. In practice it would seem that when there is a real possibility of a family member experiencing psychological trauma, the fire may be extinguished, but when there is no such concern, even if tremendous suffering is involved, one may not extinguish the fire.

07. Putting Out a Fire When There Is Danger to Human Life

In a situation where human life might be endangered by a fire, it is a mitzva for anyone who can put it out to do so as soon as possible, since danger to human life overrides Shabbat. Even if the danger is uncertain, it is still a mitzva to put out the fire. For example, if a fire breaks out in a large building, even if it seems that all the residents managed to get out, one must put out the fire as long as there is a possibility that someone may still be inside. Even if the odds are that anyone left inside has already died, since there is still a chance that a rescue is possible, everything must be done to put out the fire (SA 329:3; below 27:1).

Everything necessary must be done as efficiently as possible on all fronts: Those able to rescue people from the fire should try to do so, and those able to extinguish or control the fire should try to do so with whatever means are at their disposal. At the same time, others should call the fire department. If an observer is uncertain whether the fire department has been called already, even if it seems likely that they have been, he too must call to make sure that they come, because the possibility of saving lives overrides Shabbat. At such a time one must not ask a rabbi what to do, but rather move as quickly as possible to help.

In practice, nowadays we treat any large fire that breaks out in a residential building as a life-threatening one that must be extinguished even on Shabbat. For example, if a fire breaks out in an apartment building, there is a concern that it may spread to additional apartments and there may not be time to evacuate the residents. Besides, when there is a large fire there is no time to check if there are apartments with babies or disabled people who cannot make their way out on their own. Additionally, some homes contain explosive gas canisters that endanger people outside the building, especially considering that fires often attract large numbers of gawkers. Sometimes it takes longer to clear people out of the area than to put out the fire. If the fire is near other homes, it might spread and endanger those residents. Sometimes a fire breaks out in a storage area containing chemicals whose poisonous fumes may endanger area residents.

R. Shlomo Goren ruled that if anti-Israel terrorists start a fire that will damage property, it may be extinguished on Shabbat even if there is no danger to life, because if we do not put it out, the terrorists will feel they have succeeded and will be motivated to undertake similar attacks that could endanger lives (this is based on SA 329:6 and R. Goren’s expansion of the category of a “border town,” which may be defended against even property damage on Shabbat, to all cities in Israel, where low-grade conflict can break out; see below 27:12).

08. Putting Out a Fire to Prevent People from Being Injured

As we have seen (section 5), one who puts out a fire only transgresses rabbinically, according to most poskim. Only one who extinguishes a fire in order to produce charcoal is doing so le-tzorekh gufo. When one puts out a fire in order to prevent damage from occurring, he is not interested in the act of extinguishing, but in creating a situation in which the fire is gone. Accordingly, this is considered a melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufah.

Therefore, even though the Sages insisted that one may not put out a fire in order to salvage property, they permitted extinguishing a fire that has the potential to cause mass injury. For example, if there is a burning ember in a public domain, where many people are liable to be harmed by it, one may remove it even though it is muktzeh. If it is impossible to move it, the Sages permitted extinguishing it in order to prevent harm to the public, even though there is no danger to human life. However, in Israel, one may not call the fire department, because their travel involves Torah prohibitions, and one may not violate Torah law in order to prevent possible harm that does not involve potential loss of life. In the Diaspora, where firefighters are non-Jews, one may call the fire department, as this only involves the violation of a rabbinic prohibition (SA 334:27; see below 27:16).

To summarize, we have discussed three situations in which one may put out a fire directly or indirectly:

1) In a situation of danger to human life, it is a mitzva to do everything possible to save lives.

2) In a situation where there is a danger of harm to the public, one may put out the fire (as the Sages did not apply rabbinic rules in such a case), but one still may not violate Torah prohibitions to do so.

3) In a situation where there is financial loss but no threat of physical harm to humans, one may not extinguish the fire. Nevertheless, one may do so via grama. One may also hint to a non-Jew to put out the fire.