The Music of Halacha: Shabbat 26: Fire!
It is not wise to use tea light candles for the Shabbat Candles on a plastic tablecloth, but we do not always act with great wisdom. We are so nervous about our candles that we were shocked when the fire started on the next table. People were running to get a fire extinguisher until I yelled out, “Stop!” It may have been bad timing, but it was certainly a wonderful opportunity to teach some important Shabbat laws and help people tune into the music. I admit that the latter was slightly difficult because my (former) friends had steam coming out of their ears. They could not believe that I would stop them from putting out a fire. Strange people!
There was no risk of the firs spreading so quickly that we would not be able to get everyone safely out of the building on time. We also could get the Torah scrolls, books and tefillin into the enclosed area behind the building, but not out the front door even though there is a citywide eruv. We all had enough food for Shabbat outside of the building. There was little chance of the fire spreading to another building before we could ask a non-Jew to put out the fire.
We brilliantly determined that the tablecloth was plastic and were therefore not limited to using colored liquids, not water, to extinguish the fire. We would not have been allowed to use water on a cloth tablecloth because of Melabain – Scouring.
I instructed my discombobulated friends to drench the unburnt areas of the tablecloth with water, soda and wine to inhibit the spread of the flames.
Despite the fact that many people were quite upset with me, I felt that I accomplished something important: The Sages, in their profound wisdom and understanding of human nature, recognized that people often panic in sudden emergencies and act rashly. This is especially true with respect to a person’s worldly possessions. In the panic and confusion of the moment, one is liable to forget himself, and violate the Shabbat. The Sages therefore imposed severe limitations on what we can save from a fire on Shabbat. Their intention was to teach us to maintain some clarity even when in an emergency.
That was my intention during the crisis: “Stop for even just a second or two and think about Shabbat and what God wants us to do!”
I usually leave the job of remaining cool in a crisis to my wife, but she was not with me. I simply saw an opportunity to teach an important lesson about Shabbat, and I suspect that when my dinner companions relax they will realize they experienced the power of Halacha in an entirely new way.