The Primus Stove

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

19 Iyyar: R. Ovadya Hedaya and R. Kook on the Primus Stove

[Click for the audio]

R. Ovadya Hedayah was a renowned Torah scholar in Jerusalem of the mid-20thcentury. Shu”t Yaskil Avdi 2; Kuntres Acharon Orach Chayyim 7, records his correspondence with a R. Chanina HaKohen of Djerba, about using a Primus stove on holidays (when cooking is allowed; briefly, the Primus has a reservoir of kerosene in its base which is pumped up to the top, to where it can fuel the flame).

R. Hedayah had apparently previously sent them an essay on the permissibility of extinguishing the flame in such a stove. That assumes one may cook with it, but on Djerba, they had come to doubt the permissibility of that for reasons we’ll see.

R. Chanina wants to know how they handle the issue in Yerushalayim.

Bellows vs. Tubes

R. Hedayah begins his response by elaborating on why such a stove might be prohibited. Beitzah34a prohibits the use of a bellows to make a fire blow taller or stronger on a holiday, but does allow a shefoferet, a tube. Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayyim 502;1 accepts that as normative.

Rashi says that using a bellows looks like a professional plying his trade (metalworkers, for example, need a strong fire, and would fan the flames with their professional bellows). For that to make sense, the bellows in question must be the kind used by professionals, says R. Hedayah, since ordinary household bellows look different enough that no one would mistake the two, nor suspect this person of firing up his metalworking flame on a holiday.

For Rashi’s reading, it’s not clear why the Gemara would contrast a bellows to a shefoferet, a tube. If a homeowner’s bellows is allowed, the Gemara should have made that comparison (a non-professional may not use a professional bellows, but may use a homeowner’s bellows).

R. Hedayah answers that the Gemara wanted us to understand that it’s permissible to use a professional’s fire-fanning tube, since that only maintains an ordinary flame, not the higher flame of a professional (and if that’s allowed, a private person’s bellows is certainly allowed).

Rambam on an Ordinary Bellows

Rambam’s view might be the same as Rashi’s, but it might be slightly different. In Laws of Holidays 4;7, when he records the prohibition of a professional bellows, he says it’s so that the Jew not act on a holiday as professionals normally do. That might be the same as Rashi, but he might have meant to prohibit the use even of an ordinary bellows, for fear the person will use even that to fan the flames as a professional does.

That second reading explains why Shulchan Aruch allowed the use of a homeowner’s bellows only in an unusual way. It’s the combination of the bellows itself being different and using it unusually that sends the message we care about, that we cannot mimic a professional’s bellows.

Some rishonim did think a smaller bellows should be allowed, but Shulchan Aruch is following the view (certainly of Tosafot, probably Rashi and Rambam) that a smaller bellows could only be used (if at all) with a shinui, in a different enough manner to make clear that the person is not acting as a professional.

Primus Stove, Professional or Personal? Bellows or Pump?

R. Hedayah’s first instinct is that that should rule out a Primus, since tinsmiths and other professionals use them. True, the Primus belongs to homeowners generally, but there’s no shinui here, no way that pumping the stove to get the kerosene to rise to where it can fuel the flame differs for a professional or private person.

Except that the pump on the Primus is the only way to get it to light, where the fires the Gemara discussed can use a tube (as we have seen), an individual’s bellows, or a business-bellows. That leaves no reason to assume this contraption was ever included in Chazal’s prohibition (since those were used especially by umnin, metalworkers and other craftspersons).

He also disputes the assumption that the pump is comparable to a bellows. A bellows blows wind onto the fire, to fan its flames literally, whereas the Primus’ pump just lifts the kerosene to where it can keep the fire going. In addition, the pump is part of the mechanism itself, as opposed to the bellows, which is completely external.

Some had voiced concern that a recent innovation, a professional’s Primus, ruined this line of reasoning, since now there was a professional Primus. However, R. Hedayah notes that that version’s flame came out the side, which means there is no way to cook on it, so it’s different enough than these stoves that we do not have to keep those in mind when considering the use of the Primus.

In addition, if we decide that it’s now prohibited, we might imply that earlier generations were deficient in their observance (“people used to make the mistake that they could use a Primus stove, but we now know…”), which Gittin 5b sees as inappropriate.

Sum total, he thinks a Primus stove does not look enough like a professional’s oven to cause us to worry about using it on a holiday. And such was the custom in Jerusalem.

R. Kook Weighs In

He sent his thoughts to R. Kook (whom he terms “the head of the rabbis of Israel,” even though the highly respected R. Yaakov Meir was Sephardic Chief Rabbi), who responded on 19 Iyyar 5694 (1934), my excuse for using this responsum for this date.

R. Kook read the debate among rishonim differently than R. Hedayah. He thought the consensus was that no one should use an ordinary homeowners’ bellows (even with a shinui, a change), which he thought ruled out a Primus as well. However, Tosafot adds that common custom allowed a homeowner’s bellows if it was turned upside down.

Once flipping it over was enough, the Primus is better, because it’s structured visibly differently than a professional’s Primus. Adding a stringency would interfere with people’s ability to enjoy holidays, which we avoid.

The different ways a professional and a homeowner use their versions of the Primus adds to his confidence that the homeowner’s version is permissible. We define avot and toladot, categories of prohibited creativity on Shabbat and holidays, by either the form of the melachah, the ways it’s done, or the tachlit, the goal; the pump on the Primus shares neither with the bellows that’s worrying us. So he, too, agrees with R. Hedayah that the Primus can be used on Yom Tov, as part of enhancing our holiday enjoyment.

Most homes today have more convenient solutions, but the responsum shows a classic example of how to decide when we must or must not apply an old idea to a new situation that arises.

About Gidon Rothstein

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