Talmud pages

Bava Kamma 60

God didn't start the fire.

Often in the Talmud, a legal discussion is interrupted by a story or a theological midrash. On today’s daf, a discussion about the laws of damages caused by fire leads to a theological reflection in which the prosaic fire becomes a metaphor for God’s wrath.  

The regular student of Talmud will be accustomed to these sorts of quick transitions between halakhah (law) and aggadah (stories that explore ethics and theology). But these shifts don’t mean that the authors of the Talmud were unaware of the tensions and contrasts between these two kinds of religious texts, as we see in the following story:

Rav Ami and Rav Asi sat before Rabbi Yitzhak Nappaha. One sage said: Let the master say words of halakhah, and the other sage said: Let the master say words of aggadah. Rabbi Yitzhak Nappaha began to say words of aggadah but one sage did not let him, so he began to say words of halakhah but the other sage did not let him.

He said to them: I will relate a parable. To what can this be compared? To a man who has two wives, one young and one old. The young wife pulls out his white hairs. The old wife pulls out his black hairs. Turns out he is bald from here and from there.

Rabbi Yitzhak Nappaha has two students who can’t agree about which kind of Torah they want to learn. Neither is willing to listen to the other’s choice. They are driving their teacher crazy, to the point that he compares the students to two wives, one who wants to turn her husband young by plucking his white hairs and one who wants to make him appear older by plucking his dark hairs. If he doesn’t stop them, he will be quite bald!

The parable may silence Rabbi Yitzhak Nappaha’s two students by comparing their squabble to an interminable competition between sister wives, but the meaning of the parable is itself interesting. While the Torah may at times be torn between the needs of different students, in truth it is only complete with both halakhah and aggadah woven together, like the husband’s salt and pepper head of hair. The Torah is richer for its variety and its inclusion of complementary texts that speak to different audiences, at different stages of life. 

Rabbi Yitzkhak then satisfies both his students with a piece of Torah that includes both halakhic and aggadic interpretations of the same verse: “If a fire breaks out, and catches in thorns, the one who kindled the fire shall pay compensation.” (Exodus 22:5). The verse seems to contain a tension: The fire “breaks out” on its own accord, yet the person who started it is responsible even for unexpected damages caused by the fire’s spread in the thorns! Usually one only pays half the cost of unexpected damage caused by your property. Yet in the case of fire, Rabbi Yitzhak explains, because the spread of a conflagration is by its nature unpredictable, one pays full damage for starting the fire. 

The aggadic explanation for the increased liability is quite different:  

The Holy One, Blessed be He, said it is incumbent upon Me to pay restitution for the fire that I kindled. I kindled a fire in Zion, as it is stated: “And He has kindled a fire in Zion, which has devoured its foundations” (Lamentations 4:11). And I will build it with fire in the future, as it is stated: “For I, says the Lord, will be for her a wall of fire round about; and I will be the glory in her midst” (Zechariah 2:9)

In this interpretation, God takes responsibility for the fire that destroyed the Temple, a responsibility reflected in God’s promise to rebuild the Temple one day with a miraculous fire. It is not obvious that God should take responsibility for the destruction of the Temple. God might have argued the Romans started the fire and they ought to pay. Moreover, the rabbis often blame the sins of the Jewish people for the destruction. And yet, as a sign of God’s love of Israel and ultimate responsibility toward Jerusalem, God goes beyond the letter of the law and takes full responsibility for both the fiery destruction and the fiery redemption.

Read all of Bava Kamma 60 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 1st, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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