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(Exodus 21:1 - 24:18)

Shemot/Exodus 22:5(6)   When a fire shall go out and find thorns, and a stack of corn is consumed ... the one kindling the fire shall surely pay.


The Mishnah defines the principal categories of damages recognised by the Sages from the Scriptures, "There are four generative causes of damages: the ox [Shemot 21:35-36], the pit [21:33], the crop-destroying beast [22:4] and fire [22:5]" (m. Bava Kamma 1:1). This verse is the definitive text for the last one, fire. It deals with the responsibility for damage caused by a fire getting out of control and damaging property. There is no suggestion that anyone may not light a fire on his own property - this is perfectly permissible - but that if the fire gets away and causes damage to another party, then the person who originally lit the fire is responsible to provide recompense to the injured party. Who Is ...

Hirsch: Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888 CE), German rabbi, author and educator; staunch opponent of the Reform movement in Germany and one of the fathers of Orthodox Judaism
Hirsch explains that within the Talmud's legal system, ", fire, is the example given and the legal term, for all damage done by inanimate property which is set in motion by ordinary natural forces and which does the damage while in motion. This would include a stone, a knife or anything that one has left on the roof, and which is blown down by an ordinary every-day wind, and which does damage as it falls". Friedman, who translates the last phrase "the one who set the blaze shall pay", misses the point, since that implies deliberate action - arson, perhaps - while the focus here is more on accidental or unintended effects of a fire for which the original fire-lighter is responsible because he was negligent in not preventing it getting out of hand.

Many of the Sages emphasise the accidental nature but the resulting liability. Who Is ...

The Rashbam: Rabbi Samuel ben Asher (1085-1174 CE), a grandson of Rashi; lived in Northern France; worked from the plain meaning of the Hebrew text even when this contradicted established rabbinic interpretaton
Rashbam, who translates - a Qal 3fs prefix form of the root , to go out - as "breaks out", says, "because the one who started it did not pay close enough attention to it", while ibn Ezra suggests, "because the one who started it was not careful to clear away the thorns". The thorns are seen as the corridor or bridge by which the fire travels from its original site to neighbouring property where the damage occurs. Who Is ...

Rashi: Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105 CE), French rabbi who wrote commentaries on the Torah, the Prophets and the Talmud, lived in Troyes where he founded a yeshiva in 1067; focuses on the plain meaning (p'shat) of the text, although sometimes quite cryptic in his brevity
Rashi summarises the kindler's liability: "although he lit the fire inside his own property, and it went out on its own by means of the thorns which it had found, he is obligated to pay, because he did not take care of his burning coal so that it should not go out and cause damage".

The What Is ...

The Mekhilta: The earliest known halakhic midrash or commentary on (parts of) the book of Exodus; formally named for Rabbi Ishmael and therefore set around 100-135CE, it was redacted some years after his time; quoted many times in the Bavli Talmud as "Rabbi Ishmael taught ..."
Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael seeks to provide a limit on the distance over which liability extends. It starts the discussion with, "thorns are mentioned only to fix the distance within which one is liable. If there are thorns around, there is a certain distance within which one is liable. If there are no thorns around, there is no such distance. Hence the Sages said: if the fire gets across a river, or a road, or a stone fence higher than ten handbreadths and causes damage, he is not liable." After discussion about the size a field would have to be for a fire in its middle to be clear of liability ("Rabbi Akiva says "fifty cubits", about 75 feet), and a comment that "once a fire spread across the Jordan and did damage there, since it was a big fire", the discussion concludes, "if it keeps close to the ground and spreads that way, even though it go a distance of a mile, he is liable". So those who burn the stubble off their fields should be careful!

Switching from the liability issues to possible spiritual interpretations, the Who Is ...

Ba'al HaTurim: Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (1269-1343 CE), born in Cologne, Germany; lived for 40 years in and around Toledo, Spain; died en route to Israel; his commentary to the Chumash is based upon an abridgement of the Ramban, including Rashi, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra; it includes many references to gematria and textual novelties
Baal HaTurim's observant eyes pick out a masoretic note that the word 'thorns' appears only four times in the Hebrew Scriptures: here; "like thorns cut down, that are burned in the fire" (Isaiah 33:12, ESV); "Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns" (Jeremiah 4:3, ESV); and "they went out like a fire among thorns; in the name of the L-RD I cut them off!" (Psalm 118:12, ESV). Although the Tur stretches the simple meanings a little, he suggests that fire spreads of its own accord and - or, perhaps, in order to - consume the thorns. He adds that the Sages take the thorns as an analogy for the wicked and recommends that the righteous should plough their own furrows in clean ground rather that waste their seed among the wicked. This is supported by the prophets, "Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will be as rottenness, and their blossom go up like dust; for they have rejected the law of the L-RD of Hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel" (Isaiah 5:24, ESV). Jeremiah extends the image - "Is not My word like fire, declares the L-RD, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?" (Jeremiah 23:29, ESV) - to connect the image of 'fire' with the word of the L-rd.

Jeremiah felt the word of G-d burning within him - "it seems as though a fire is burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I wear myself out trying to hold it in, but I just can't do it" (Jeremiah 20:9, CJB) - and two of Yeshua's disciples reported the same sensation when they had spent some hours walking and talking with Yeshua on the road to Emmaus: "They said to each other, 'Didn't our hearts burn inside us as He spoke to us on the road, opening up the Tanakh to us?'" (Luke 24:32, CJB). Have you felt the word of G-d burning in you: as you read it, as you hear it, as you chew over and argue with it, as G-d changes your life by speaking His fire into your soul? Do you allow G-d the freedom to speak with and challenge you, to comfort and affirm you, to rebuke and chasten you, as He corrects your behaviour and attitudes and reminds you that He loves you?

We sometimes forget that G-d is in the business of producing brothers and sisters for Yeshua. We focus more on the fact that we are brothers and sisters to each other, in Messiah, and lose sight of G-d's objective: that we should be "conformed to the image of His Son, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers" (Romans 8:29, ESV). Writing to the Diaspora communities, Peter explains that they are the elect, "according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood" (1 Peter 1:2, ESV) - the purpose of their calling is that they should be obedient to Yeshua, becoming like Him. Rav Sha'ul confirms this: "Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven" (1 Corinthians 15:49, ESV). How will this happen? G-d is changing us day by day, speaking His life into our lives, so that we "put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator" (Colossians 3:10, ESV).

Sadly, our human natures often fight G-d in the process and we resist His efforts to change us. Just as God has a unique and individual plan for our lives, to give us "hope and a future" (Jeremiah 29:11), the enemy of our souls also has a plan for our life, with a completely different destination: "the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many" (Matthew 7:13, ESV). Although the enemy's plans often look very good and attractive, sometimes even appearing to be going in exactly the right direction, they are nothing but lies and deception. They can be aligned to the thorns that provide a way for our fire to get out of control and cause damage, sometimes miles away from where we are. We need to plough the soil around our lives, to keep it weed and thorn free, and to keep the fire that G-d has given us in its place.

Sometimes we try to limit G-d's fire in our lives because we fear that we will be consumed by it. Like a tumbleweed thorn bush in the desert, struck by lightning or simply bursting into flame with spontaneous combustion, only to flare for a few moments and then collapse as a little heap of ash and charcoal on the sand, we worry that if we let G-d's fire sweep through us, our lives will burn out and be left as ash. But, just as Moshe saw G-d "in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed" (Shemot 3:2, JPS), God's intention is to refine us, "as one refines silver, and test [us] as gold is tested" (Zechariah 13:9), not to destruction, but that we may shine and be pure and precious in His sight. Time in the furnace may not be pleasant, but in the Master's hand we are safe. He knows what He is doing and He will not allow the fire to escape and cause damage, even though the thorns are all burned away.

Further Study: Malachi 3:2-4; Matthew 3:11-12; 1 Corinthians 3:11-15

Application: Are you prepared to let G-d bring His fire into your life to cleanse and purify you and conform you to the image of His Son? Don't try to start your own fire, but call out to Him and welcome His holy fire - His word and His Spirit - today.

© Jonathan Allen, 2013



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