Becoming a Firefighter

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

6 Kislev: Tzitz Eliezer on Becoming a Firefighter

One of the blessed challenges of a renewed Jewish presence in the Land of Israel is that it brings up questions of how an halachic Judaism can function in a full working society. Tzitz Eliezer 7;20, dated 6 Kislev 5722 (1961) takes up one such challenge. The rabbi of Pardes Channah, R. Yehoshua Zelig Diskin, wanted to know if an observant Jew could take a job as a firefighter. To take the job would mean that he knew in advance that he would sometimes be called on Shabbat, and not all of those calls would be life-threatening cases [this obviously applies to other professions as well, most notably medicine].

The local council (apparently sensitive to the issue, whether or not they were observant) claimed that Shabbat and Yom Tov calls were not part of the formal job. I’m not sure what they meant by that; the language they used was that those were voluntary, but the firefighter would not have the right to refuse to respond.

I think they meant he gets paid for the non-Shabbat work that he does, and that’s the job he’s accepting. Once he’s a qualified firefighter, he’ll need to respond to emergencies that arise, but that’s only because of his expertise. [It would be like a doctor who’s hired only for during the week, and then someone gets sick in shul on Shabbat. That’s not the job he took, but he does need to respond to that emergency. The analogy isn’t perfect, because here, the calls will come through the firehouse, so it’s harder to split the two, even if technically his salary is for his scheduled service].

Let’s see how Tzitz Eliezer sees it.

Setting Oneself Up for Piku’ach Nefesh

The first issue R. Waldenberg raises is whether it’s permissible to create a necessity to violate Shabbat to save a life. Ba’al HaMa’or and Ramban disagreed about this exact issue, in the context of circumcision. The Gemara assumed that it was a life-saving necessity to wash a baby in hot water after being circumcised. If the hot water for that purpose was spilled out (or they forgot to heat it), could the father circumcise anyway, knowing he would then need to heat water (a violation of Shabbat) to wash/save the baby? Or must he wait to circumcise?
The question rolled around halachic literature in various forms; R. Waldenberg points especially to Chatam Sofer’s discussion of whether a mitzvah purpose allows a Jew to go to a dangerous place on Shabbat, knowing he will then have to leave (and violate Shabbat) to save his life. In all those cases, the action that necessitate the follow-up lifesaving violation was being taken on Shabbat, yet some or many authorities permitted it. That should make it even easier to allow our case, where the man is putting himself in that position before Shabbat.

Sailing on a Ship

A priori, it would seem reasonable that Shabbat brings with it a responsibility not to manufacture unnecessary circumstances that require us to push it aside to save a life. Yet many authorities allow it for a devar mitzvah, a mitzvah purpose, even one that could also be performed after Shabbat. R. Waldenberg adds that being able to earn a living in many cases qualifies as a matter of mitzvah [that’s a mouthful tossed off very casually].

When it’s not yet Shabbat, there’s more room to allow the Jew to act in a way that will lead to a need to save lives on Shabbat even for a non-mitzvah purpose. It’s not clear that halachah wants or requires a Jew to anticipate the Shabbat ramifications of current actions.

The best example is travelling on a ship. Rivash in several places allowed embarking three days before Shabbat, even though the necessities of keeping the ship afloat will require violating Shabbat. That was true even if the trip was for a devar reshut, a purpose not specifically a mitzvah. Once the need arises, it’s perfectly permissible to save the lives on Shabbat, so there’s nothing wrong with creating such a situation.

Fostering Certain Needs to Violate the Torah

Shu”t Torat Chessed expressed this more broadly. He saw no prohibition against acting in a way that will later lead one to be unable to fulfill a mitzvah or even force one to violate a prohibition [in what will then be an halachically acceptable way; we don’t have the space here to engage that responsum, but it cannot go unsaid that this can be taken to extremes. I have been slowly reading Binyamin Brown’s remarkable biography of Chazon Ish, and he notes that Chazon Ish made that exact point about saving lives on Shabbat, that he was comfortable ruling remarkably leniently about what constituted saving lives, but not if it was going to become a regular practice.

An example given there is that in the teens and twenties of the twentieth century, American Jews could reasonably claim that violating Shabbat was necessary to earn a living and thus constituted pikuach nefesh. Even if the argument was accurate in a specific case, it could not be allowed to become a widespread practice].

Fostering the Possibility or Likelihood of Violation, Not the Certainty

We do not need to go that far to allow the firefighter to take the job, since he’s not going to have to violate every Shabbat. Once there’s a reasonable doubt about whether he’ll need to violate any particular Shabbat, that eases our way to say that he is not clearly and absolutely putting himself in the position to violate Shabbat.

Chatam Sofer reasoned that way to allow a kohen to become a doctor, since it’s not necessarily true that his patients will die on him. In any case the patient does become mortally ill, the doctor will then be in a lifesaving situation, and can do what needs to be done [today, becoming a doctor is more complicated, since the training might require the kohen to come into contact with corpses; I think poskim divide on that issue, but it’s not our current topic].

R. Shlomo Kluger in Tuv Ta’am va-Da’ataddressed the hole in this reasoning, that over time the doctor will certainly have such patients. By committing to the profession, this doctor (or firefighter) is almost definitely setting himself up to have to push aside Torah law to save lives at some later date. R. Kluger thought it was nonetheless allowed, whether because there were no other qualified practitioners or even just because this Jew needed the job to make a living.

The same logic applies to our firefighter. Once that’s true, every call that comes on a Shabbat or Yom Tov is a case of safek pikuach nefesh, possible need to save a life, and the clear rule is that we are allowed to do what it takes to save a person in such a situation. R. Waldenberg the again emphasizes that it is not even clear there will be any calls on Shabbat.

[Allow me to point out an unaddressed hole in the reasoning. When R. Shlomo Kluger allows taking a job either because there are no other qualified candidates or because this man needs to earn a living, he leaves open an important question—what if there are other candidates and/or this man could earn a living some other way, but prefers this way?

If Pardes Channah had a shortage of firefighters, or this man was unquestionably the best one out there, or he had been unable to find any other job, that’s one form of the question. But what if it’s a highly competitive profession (such as medicine), and this is a person of sufficiently broad talents that s/he could choose to make a living some other way? I’m not sure the answer here gives us clear guidance on that version of the question].

Putting Out Fires on Shabbat

The second aspect of the question stems from the fact that putting out fires on Shabbat isn’t obviously recognized as life-threatening in the Gemara. The Gemara treats fires as an economic problem, and allows us to save only what we need for that Shabbat (it recommends ways to expand those needs so as to be able to save as much as possible, and to hinder the spread of the fire, but the Gemara does not seem to think of it as an issue of life or death). If we are supposed to let fires burn themselves out, then it would be harder to allow this man to take on the obligation to extinguish fires as part of his job. As we’ll see, halachah had long changed its attitude to fire.

Rema Orach Chayyim 334;26—based on earlier sources—ruled that when we live among non-Jews, we must extinguish fires because of the danger of the non-Jews hurting us for endangering their property (we once saw a responsum of Chatam Sofer, where a premise of the question was that non-Jewish law allowed throwing a Jewish homeowner into any fire that started in his home).

Mishnah Berurah expanded that to all fires, since any fire left to burn threatens the lives of those too old, young, or infirm to flee. (R. Waldenberg points to Mordechai, a late thirteenth century Ashkenazic authority, who already mentions both these reasons, fear of retribution and of putting others in harm’s way.Mordechai himself denied that these were sufficient to allow extinguishing fires, he did already know both ideas.) Aruch HaShulchan offered yet another reason, that the Gemara allows extinguishing coals in public spaces, to save people from being hurt by stepping on them accidentally.

Now that houses are built much closer to the public spaces than in the time of the Gemara, it’s almost certain that a fire in a house will lead to many such coals in public spaces. Rather than waiting and trying to track down all those coals once they constitute a public danger, it’s more efficient and safer to allow putting out the fire while it’s still in the house.

Are Fires Always a Threat to Life?

Aruch HaShulchan’s clever reasoning does not help our firefighter, since he can only justify turning on the fire engine and driving it to the fire to save lives. In fact, though, the consensus has become that small fires spread and turn into big fires often enough to cause danger to life, and we may therefore put them out.

Later in the responsum—in a back and forth I don’t have the space to reproduce—he also mentions that most times we extinguish a fire, it’s considered a melachah she-einah tzerichah le-gufah, an action done for a different purpose than the one that defines it [for the Gemara, the Shabbat prohibition of extinguishing is a matter of preparing coals or wicks for later lighting; extinguishing fire just to be rid of the fire is not full mechabeh.]

[Without in any way questioning this presentation, I would point out that there are still today occasions when there’s no reason to think or worry a fire will spread; in those cases, there seems to be no justification for putting it out. Years ago, I unthinkingly violated this, and continue to feel regret about it. A challah cover I was holding caught fire, and I instinctively waved it out, when I could have easily taken it to a small trash can (or bathtub), and let it burn.

Not all fire is the same, in other words, so that even as we today see most fires as life-threatening, we might also remember that when it’s not, there’s no clear reason to permit putting it out, even if the financial damage will be significant).

Modern Firefighting and Its Leniencies

By 1961, firefighting consisted of hooking a hose to a large tank of water and spraying the water onto the fire; that’s geram mechabeh, indirect action to extinguish the fire (direct mechabeh is where I smother a fire by hand, or pour water directly on a fire). In addition, it’s often two people who hook up the hose, which is a lesser violation (Shabbat melachah is an action done by a single person). It does look to others like a violation, so it takes a pressing need to allow it, but once we have such a need, there’s more room to allow it than we might have realized.

Since the man’s taking the job before Shabbat (when he might not be required to anticipate the future for these purposes); it’s for a mitzvah (earning a living); he might never need to respond to a call on Shabbat; his Shabbat actions might all only be a matter of grama, causation; and he could always act with another person, R. Waldenberg sees plenty of room to allow it.

In fact, he says, it’s better to have observant Jews take such jobs, since they will respond to emergencies with some sensitivity to the halachic preferences for how to act, unlike those who are not observant.

A reminder that observant Jews should live fully in this world, not outsource complicated issues to those who, sadly, do not realize their Gd-given obligations.

About Gidon Rothstein

One comment

  1. “Rema Orach Chayyim 334;26—based on earlier sources—ruled that when we live among non-Jews, we must extinguish fires because of the danger of the non-Jews hurting us for endangering their property (we once saw a responsum of Chatam Sofer, where a premise of the question was that non-Jewish law allowed throwing a Jewish homeowner into any fire that started in his home).”

    In communities where this is a concern, wouldn’t there also be a concern that the non-Jewish fire-fighter or physician might not put in his life on the line to rescue the Jew? In that case, I think the argument in support of Jewish fire-fighters and medical personnel is stronger.

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