One may rescue a basket full of loaves and the like from a fire on Shabbat, even if there is food for one hundred meals in it. And one may rescue a round cake of dried figs, even though it is very large, and one may rescue a barrel full of wine. And one may even say to others: Come and rescue for yourselves. And if the people who rescue with him were clever, they make a calculation with him after Shabbat in order to receive payment for the items that they rescued.
Wait a minute! Just a few pages earlier, we learned in a previous mishnah on 117b that there is a limit to how much food may be rescued on Shabbat: specifically, just enough for the meals to be eaten on that Shabbat alone. But now we learn that one may rescue very large quantities of food?!
The Gemara resolves the conflict in a typically talmudic way, by defining the boundaries of each case. In the first, where moving only enough food for three meals is permitted, the food is moved to a different courtyard (to be saved) — and it is expressly for only one person or family. In the case on today’s page, a greater quantity of food is moved within the same courtyard, and it is enough to feed the many people who aid in the rescue.
And, there’s another oddity in today’s mishnah: when it comes to repayment, what sort of calculation are we talking about? Do items rescued by neighbors now belong to those neighbors and need to be bought back? And what does it say about the neighbors who help out in the crisis that they would exact that payment? And for something done on Shabbat, no less?
In our Gemara, Rav Hisda offers a clever answer to this second problem:
These are pious people. They want to return the objects to their owner even though they are not legally obligated to do so, and they were permitted to receive payment for their efforts.
Rav Hisda rescues the reputation of these neighbors. He says it’s not that they expect payment — they are, after all, pious people who just want to help. At the same time, the mishnah permits the homeowner to acknowledge their kindness with payment.
While fires are thankfully rare where I live, we commonly experience flooding, hail damage and fallen tree limbs that destroy property (in fact, all three of these things happened in my neighborhood during a quick and violent storm on a recent Shabbat). Neighbors may come over to help move sifrei kodesh (holy books) from a flooded basement (more on that topic at the beginning of this chapter), but we would not expect them to exact payment (or keep the books). However, the owner of the sodden basement is certainly going to feel a debt of gratitude to her neighbors for their assistance, and the neighbors may feel that some sort of recognition is due (after all, they gave up part of their Shabbat to schlep books).
Whether remuneration takes the form of actual payment, an offer to contribute tzedakah to the neighbor’s favorite charity, or the delivery of a homemade challah next Shabbat, today’s Gemara reminds us not to undervalue the worth of good relationships. Even more than fences, it is appreciation that makes good neighbors.