Bava Kamma 23

Fire, beasts and arrows.

Yesterday’s daf presented a debate between Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan about the type of responsibility one has for fire that burns out of control: 

It was stated: Rabbi Yohanan says: His liability for damage caused by his fire is due to its similarity to his arrows.

And Reish Lakish says: His liability for the damage caused by his fire is due to its similarity to his property.

When it comes to assessing damages, Rabbi Yohanan says a fire is like an arrow, meaning it is like an extension of the hand of the person who set it. Reish Lakish, however, says a fire is like an animal with a mind of its own — meaning that, for damages, it falls into the category of property.

The Gemara constructs a complex case to test the distinction between these two understandings of fire:

If a fire broke out in a courtyard, and afterward the fence separating this courtyard from the neighbor’s courtyard collapsed, but not due to the fire, and therefore the fire spread and ignited items and caused damage in another courtyard — there he is exempt because there it is as if his arrows were depleted. 

In this complicated example, the person who set the fire might reasonably have expected the wall between courtyards would stop its progress, and is therefore not liable for damage in the second courtyard when the wall falls of its own accord and the fire spreads. But, by implication, we might suppose that if the fire burned down the wall, then the owner would be responsible for the damage on the other side of it.

Even if the wall falls unexpectedly, shouldn’t you try to stop the fire, once you realize? The Gemara continues:

If he had the ability to repair the breach and fence in the courtyard again but he did not fence it in, he is liable, as there it is similar to his ox and he did not strike it in its face.

A person ought to try to stop a moving fire, the same way they should stop an animal from wandering into other people’s property. 

In the first description, fire is like an arrow and the one who set it is responsible for the consequences of its spread. But when it burns down the fence, that very same fire becomes like an ox, roaming of its own accord. The point of this example is that “arrows” and “property” are not mutually exclusive descriptions of the liability one has for fire. Rather, fire can be put in either category, depending on the circumstances.

The Gemara is not satisfied. Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish are not collectively saying that fire is sometimes like arrows and sometimes like property, though sometimes this may appear true. They must actually disagree on something. But what?

The practical difference between them is with regard to holding him liable for the additional four types of indemnity. 

Now the Gemara explains the fundamental difference between the two perspectives: If fire is like an arrow you shoot, then you are responsible for all the payments that accompany personal injury: pain, medical costs, loss of livelihood and humiliation. If fire is merely property, like an animal that got out of control, you are only responsible for the actual cost of the damage it caused. So, if it was reasonable to expect the fire would spread at the time of lighting, then the fire is considered as an “arrow” and one pays the additional compensation for personal injury; but if it was an unusual or unexpected spread, then the fire is merely like a roaming ox, and you are only responsible for basic damages. 

This conclusion reflects the elusive nature of fire, both a powerful tool that humans wield and a force of nature — beyond our control, but still within our responsibility.

Read all of Bava Kamma 23 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 24th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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