Business Weekly: Bonfire!

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A Project of the Business Halacha Intistute
All content has been reviewed by Harav Chaim Kohn for accuracy

by Rabbi Meir Orlian, Yerushalayim

“Bar Yochai, nimshachta ashrecha…” Voices rang out as people danced around the roaring bonfire. The youngsters of the neighborhood, along with many adults, had gathered to celebrate Lag Ba’Omer.

After two hours of singing, dancing, and a Dvar Torah by the Rabbi, the group began to head home. The attending firefighter doused the flames with water.

“What? Already?! It’s not fair that we have to stop,” complained sixteen-year-old Boruch to his friends. “Just because the adults want to go doesn’t mean we want to!”

“Yeah,” answered Eli, “Let’s go make our own fire. We can stay up late, roast marshmallows, tell stories and share Divrei Torah!”

“But where can we make the fire?” asked one of the boys.

“There’s an unused lot nearby,” said Boruch. “There are just some weeds and a small broken-down shed there. What do you say?”

The boys looked at each other. Finally, someone declared, “Let’s do it!” They gathered the branches left over from the community fire and dragged them to the unused lot.

When they finished piling the branches in the middle of the lot, Boruch lit the fire. “What about the weeds and that tree over there?” asked one of the boys. “Isn’t there a danger that the fire might spread?”

“Oh, don’t worry,” said Boruch. “They’re too far away. See, even when the wind blows, the fire doesn’t go near them.”

Eli brought marshmallows, which they roasted on thin braches. Boruch strummed his guitar and they sat around singing into the night.

The wind picked up. The boys huddled around the fire, enjoying its warmth. “Let’s get some more wood to make the fire bigger,” said Eli.

“Stay here and keep an eye on the fire,” Boruch said to his twelve-year-old brother, Simcha. “If anything happens, there are buckets of water over here.” He walked away with the other boys to find more wood.

Without warning, an unusually strong gust of wind blew, fanning the fire and whipping the flame far across the ground. Some of the weeds caught fire, which started to spread towards the wooden shed! Simcha rushed to pour water on the fire, but it had already spread too much.

The fire began to engulf the shed and reach toward the tree. “Fire! Fire!” Simcha shouted. A neighbor poked his head through his window and quickly called the fire department, who extinguished the fire before it caused more significant damage.

Meanwhile, the owner of the property showed up and screamed at the boys: “Who gave you permission to light a fire here? That was so irresponsible!”

Although the broken shed was not worth much, the owner decided to take the boys to a Din Torah to teach them a lesson. He brought them before Rabbi Tzedek.

“These boys lit a fire that spread and burned down my shed,” the owner claimed.

“We know it was wrong,” said Boruch. “However, we made sure to distance the fire from the shed, and we also asked Simcha to stand guard with buckets of water.”

“So what?” argued the owner. “Don’t you know that wind blows fire around?”

“Yes, but when we lit the fire, the wind wasn’t strong,” responded Boruch. “The sudden gust of wind was unexpected.”

“What’s the difference,” said the owner. “You never know how the wind will blow…”

Rabbi Tzedek turned to Baruch and ruled: “Had you lit the fire on your own property, you would have been exempt if you distanced it sufficiently for normal wind conditions. However, since you lit on another’s property you are liable.”

He explained: “A person is responsible for a fire that he lit and was spread by the wind, unless he was careful to distance it sufficiently from something that could burn. If he did so, but it was spread by an unusually strong wind, he is exempt. (C.M. 418:2)

However, this is only if the person lit the fire on his own property, in a permissible manner. If he lit the fire without permission on his neighbor’s property or on public property, he is liable even if it was spread by an unusually strong wind. Leaving a minor to guard the fire is insufficient and does not transfer responsibility away from the one who lit it (418:7).”
 
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(YWN Desk – NYC)