Chagigah 27

Walking through fire.

A few weeks ago, I started reading the Harry Potter series with my seven-year-old. Now in the second book, we’ve just encountered a scene in the Gryffindor common room in which the mischievous Fred and George Weasley are seen stuffing magical salamanders with Filibuster fireworks, delighting in watching the poor creatures corkscrew through the air, emitting loud bangs and “tangerine stars.” The unlucky salamanders are irritated but fundamentally unhurt, and retreat to safety in the flames of the crackling common room fireplace where the young wizards cannot reach them.

The incombustible salamander trope is ancient. Aristotle claimed salamanders were not only fireproof, they were born Phoenix-like from fire and capable of putting it out just by scampering through it. Pliny the Elder actually ran the experiment (unfortunately, for the salamanders he captured). These ideas are found in bestiaries well past antiquity, up through the Middle Ages and into the early modern period. They were also known to the rabbis. However, as we learn today, the rabbis had a much more effective method of fireproofing:

Rabbi Abbahu said that Rabbi Elazar said: The fire of Gehenna has no power over Torah scholars. This can be derived by inference from the salamander: If a salamander, which is merely a product of fire, and nevertheless when one anoints his body with its blood, fire has no power over him, all the more so should fire not have any power over Torah scholars, whose entire bodies are fire, as it is written: “Surely My words are as fire, says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 23:29)

Salamander blood, the rabbis know (as apparently many did), has a remarkable property: It can be applied to the body as a fire shield. You wouldn’t likely find a rabbinic Jew trying this trick, however. A dead salamander would probably have been classified as a sheretz, an inherently impure kind of creeping creature. Painting oneself with its blood would impart impurity.

Luckily, there’s a much more effective, and less messy, way to acquire fire immunity. Jeremiah famously prophesied that God’s words are fire. Not forged in fire, like salamanders, but made of actual fire (we saw this on Shekalim 16 as well). Because Torah scholars embody words of Torah, they are essentially holy, walking infernos capable of passing through the flames of Gehenna (surely, more intense than ordinary earth flames) unscathed. One is reminded of the biblical image of Shadrach, Mishach and Abednego walking through a superheated furnace completely unharmed. (Daniel 3:25)

That’s all very well for Torah scholars, but what about the rest of us? Luckily, Reish Lakish has us covered too, and he also gets the last word in this tractate:

Reish Lakish said: The fire of Gehenna has no power over the sinners of Israel. This is inferred from the golden altar (in the Temple). If the golden altar, which has on it (a coating of gold) that is no more than the thickness of a dinar (coin), and which has incense burning on it for many years and yet fire has no power over it, all the more so should immunity from fire be granted to the sinners of Israel, who are filled with mitzvot as a pomegranate is full of seeds, as it is written: “Your temples (rakatekh) are like a pomegranate split open” (Song of Songs 4:3), which is to be expounded as follows: Do not read this word as rakatekh, rather read it as reikanin shebakh (meaning the empty, worthless people among you).

By way of a midrashic pun, Reish Lakish, himself a former brigand, notes that even Jews who are “empty,” who are full of sins, are also full of mitzvot, like a pomegranate bursting with seeds. These acts fill them, define them, change their physical nature and shield them from the fires of Gehenna. He draws an analogy to the gold coating on the Temple altar — discussed at length earlier on this page when the rabbis were trying to determine if the altar could contract impurity — which miraculously remains in perfect condition despite all the incense constantly burned on it.

This tractate, as its name implies, began with the laws of bringing sacrifices to the Temple on pilgrimage festivals. In the opening pages, we saw a midrash that on the festivals the people not only are seen by God, they also get to see God. While this midrash is likely meant to be understood metaphorically, as the tractate progressed we saw that several mystics actually sought to see God with their own eyes. This proved extremely dangerous — and frequently resulted in death, not uncommonly by fire.

As we close this tractate, we are reminded that God’s word is also made of fire. We can swallow it up and it protects us — even from the fires of hell.

Read all of Chagigah 27 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 8th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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