A Flaming Arrow

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Mishpatim

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: Why is lighting candles on Friday not considered a violation of Shabbos?

When a fire is started and spreads to thorns, so that stacked, standing, or growing grain is consumed, the one who started the fire must make restitution. (Exodus 22:5)

We do not need to exert ourselves to find a halachic connection to this particular Torah portion. Therefore, rather than choose a completely arbitrary topic, it is worthwhile that we take the opportunity to demonstrate the beauty and interconnectedness of Torah law.

While one is indisputably responsible for an act of arson, the verse also teaches us that one who merely kindles a flame would be culpable for any damage it thereby proceeds to inflict on someone else’s property – even though the fire moves independent of the person who initially created it. The Talmud (Bava Kamma 22a) poses a dichotomy in how to understand why one is culpable for igniting a flame that just so happens to travel and burn another party’s property. (A) One possibility is that it is analogous to when one’s property inflicts damage, such as one’s ox (isho mishum mimono). (B) Alternatively, we conceptualize the flame as an arrow that is shot by the man himself (isho mishum chitzav). Therefore, when the flame travels we view it as if the man who ignited it is constantly rekindling it all the way until it makes impact.

The Nemukei Yosef (Bava Kamma 22a / 10a) raises a truly creative and marvelous question: If the act of lighting a flame is analogous to shooting an arrow, it would stand to reason that the Rabbinic mandate of kindling Shabbos candles on Friday should be precluded. Since we legally perceive the existence of one’s flame as a result of constant individual involvement, so long as the flame endures on Shabbos one would be violating the prohibition of ignition. In fact, the act of lighting a candle for Shabbos would be worse than in a case of inadvertent damage, since the person specifically intends for the flame to last into Shabbos!

(1) The Nemukei Yosef himself answers that we need to redefine what we mean when we say that igniting a fire is analogous to shooting an arrow. When one launches a projectile at a person or object, Jewish law actually perceives that the target has already been harmed or destroyed from the moment of release – even prior to the physical impact. For instance, if one lights a flame but dies prior to the flame inflicting damage, restitution would still be seized from his personal estate since from the moment of “release,” the deed is considered to have been completely performed from start to finish. Thus, when one lights candles for Shabbos, we do not view him as constantly rekindling the flame throughout Shabbos, but rather the entire deed from start to finish has been completed when it was kindled Friday afternoon.

(2) R. Meshulem Igra (Responsa O.C. no. 5) tackles the question of the Nikumei Yosef from a different angle based on an exception outlined the Talmud (Shabbos 3a):

It was taught [in a baraisa]: Rabbi [Yehudah HaNasi] said: [It is written: “And if one soul sins unwittingly] from the people of the land when he does it, [one of the laws of God that should not be done and he is responsible” (Lev.  4:27). The verse’s emphasis on the words “when he does it” means:] One who does all of it, [i.e., the entire transgression, is liable] and not one who does part of it. [Therefore,] an individual, and he performed [an action in its entirety], is liable. [However,] two people, and they performed [an action together], are not liable, [as each one performed only part of the action]. It was also stated: Rabbi Chiyya bar Gamda said: It emanated from the group [of Sages] and they said: [From the verse’s emphasis on] “when he does it” [it is derived]: An individual who performed it is liable. [However,] two who performed it are not liable.

This passage teaches us that when two people (who are capable of performing an act independently) violate Shabbos together – such as transporting a twig a distance of four amos (about six feet) in a public domain – it diminishes the severity and does not constitute a Biblical violation of carrying on Shabbos. Thus, R. Igra suggests that the Shabbos candles are also a dual effort between two parties: The sixth and seventh day of the week. And since it is a team effort, the deed is diffused, and therefore does not constitute a violation of kindling a flame on Shabbos. Furthermore, since there is no issue with lighting a flame on Friday it would be more akin to a case in which a Jew and non-Jew partnered together, which is perhaps less severe since the non-Jew is more than welcome to [i.e. obligated] not to observe Shabbos (see Mishnas Rabbi Eliezer, no. 12).

(However, it should be noted that according to Rashi (Shabbos 93a, s.v. V’Chad) the reason that two people who violate Shabbos together would not be liable to a Biblical penalty is not due to a diffusion of responsibility but rather due to the fact that the deed was performed in an abnormal manner (shinui). Therefore, since in our case the flame is being kindled in a completely standard fashion the severity would not be mitigated by the duel-partnership between Friday afternoon and Shabbos evening.)

While the laws of torts and Shabbos are two seemingly unrelated areas of halachah, the question posed by the Nemukei Yosef marvelously demonstrates how the Torah is an interconnected system of principles and ideas. The more we study other areas of Torah the more profoundly we can comprehend and appreciate the entire corpus of halachic literature.

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria, Chabad.org, Mechon Mamre, and my own. Contact: [email protected]

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

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