The unedited full-text of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia


—Biblical Data:

The ordinary process of combustion, for which the Hebrew generally has , in Daniel (Aramaic) , and, with reference to the accompanying heat and glow, and ; while is a corrupt ἄπαξ λεγόμενον), the derivation of which from is not certain, is a technical sacerdotal term for burnt offering. The materials for making fires (see Fuel) were wood, charcoal, thorns, and dung. Rubbing pieces of wood against each other, a primitive method ofgetting fire, was apparently in use among the Hebrews. This at least seems to be the more probable meaning of the word "meḳoshesh" (gathering), used in describing the act of the Sabbath-breaker (Num. xv. 32-33; see I Kings xvii. 12, "shenayim 'eẓim" = "two sticks"). Jewish legend (see Adam, Book of) maintains that Adam and Eve were shown this method of making fire. In II Macc. x. 3 reference is made to the method of procuring fire by striking steel against flint. The fire-stone ("ḥallamish") was certainly known to the Hebrews, though the Biblical references to it simply emphasize its hardness, and give no intimations concerning its use for the purpose of ignition. In domestic life fire was kindled to prepare food, to bake bread or cakes, to give warmth (Ex. xii. 8; II Chron. xxxv. 13; I Kings xvii. 12; Isa. xliv. 16; Jer. vii. 18, xxxvi. 22). The ancient Hebrews rarely needed fire to heat their dwellings. They occasionally used braziers ("aḥ"), though the larger houses were provided with "winter rooms" (Amos iii. 15), which had excavations for the aḥ, the heat being preserved as long as possible by means of a carpet or rug placed over the charcoal (Nowack, "Lehrbuch der Hebräischen Archäologie," i. 141; Benzinger, "Arch." p. 124).

Uses of Fire.

On the Sabbath no fire for domestic uses could be kindled (Ex. xxxv. 3). In refining, smelting, and forging metals fire was extensively employed; e.g., in the making of the golden calf (Ex. xxxii. 24) and of idols (Isa. xliv. 12, liv. 16; Ecclus. [Sirach] ii. 5). Fire was a means of vengeance (II Sam. xii. 31 [but see commentaries on this passage]; Jer. xxix. 22; Dan. iii. 11, 15; II Macc. vii. 5). Idols especially were destroyed by fire (Deut. vii. 5; II Kings xix. 18). Cities were burned as a war measure (Josh. vi. 24). Crops were set on fire to incite hostilities (Judges xv. 4-5; II Sam. xiv. 30). If damage was done to vineyard or field or crop by carelessness in building a fire, the blameworthy party was held liable (Ex. xxii. 6). Books of an obnoxious character were thrown into the fire (Jer. xxxvi. 23). For certain offenses the penalty was death by fire (Lev. xx. 24, xxi. 9; comp. Jer. xxix. 22; Capital Punishment). Garments infected with leprosy were consigned to the flames (Lev. xiii. 52, 57). Animal refuse and stubble were burned (Lev. iv. 12, vi. 30; Isa. v. 24). Only in exceptional cases were human bodies incinerated (see Cremation).

Sacerdotal Use of Fire.

The fire on the altar, needed for the burnt offering, was always kept burning (Lev. vi. 12). "Strange fire," that is, fire newly kindled or taken from profane hearths, was not permitted (Lev. x. 1; Num. iii. 4, xxvi. 61; comp. Ariel). The holy fire was believed to have had a divine origin (Lev. ix. 24; II Chron. vii. 1-3; comp. II Macc. i. 19-22). Fire as the means of offering human sacrifices is abhorred (Deut. xii. 31; II Kings xvii. 31); its use for such infamous purpose is prohibited (Lev. xviii. 21; Deut, xviii. 10), though it was in vogue even among the Israelites (II Kings xvii. 17; Jer. vii. 31), especially under Ahaz and Manasseh (II Kings xvi. 3, xxi. 6; see Tophet, and Gen. xxii. 6). Portions not consumed during the actual ceremony of sacrifice were burned (Ex. xii. 10).

Fire from Heaven.

The phenomenon of lightning may perhaps under-lie such expressions as "fire from heaven" and "fire from before Yhwh" (Lev. x. 2; II Kings i. 10, 12); indeed, fire and hail are associated (Ex. ix. 23; Ps. cv. 32). Fire was regarded as one of the agents of divine will; it is a concomitant of various theophanies (Gen. xv. 17; Ex. iii. 2; Deut. iv. 36; Ps. lxxviii. 14, see Elijah); and divine fire consumes the acceptable offering (Judges vi. 21; I Kings xviii. 38). As a development of this conception, God Himself is called a consuming fire (Deut. iv. 24, ix. 3). The appearance of fire on the Tabernacle is significant of the divine presence (comp. Num. iii. 4). Fire is the instrument of God's wrath (Num. xi. 1; Deut. xxxii. 22; Amos i. 4; Isa. lxv. 5), but God Himself is not in the fire (see Elijah; I Kings xix. 12).

Metaphorical and Illustrative Use.

Fire implies complete destruction (Isa. i. 7, v. 24, ix. 18; Joel ii. 3). Fire is a burning, wasting disease; it consumes courage and pride (Isa. x. 16, xxxiii. 11). Fire is insatiable (Prov. xxx. 16). It betokens danger (Ps. lxvi. 12; Isa. xliii. 2; Zech. iii. 2). It causes pain, and therefore it is the synonym of terrible punishment (Isa. lxvi. 24; Jer. xx. 9). Venomous reptiles share the power of fire (Num. xxi. 6). Love and lust (Cant. viii. 6; Ecclus. [Sirach] ix. 8, xxiii. 16), the slanderous tongue and cruelty (Prov. xvi. 27; Ps. cxx. 4; Isa. ix. 18), burn like fire; and even so does God's word (Jer. xxiii. 29).

—In Rabbinical Literature:

Fire was created on Monday (Pirḳe R. El. iv.), as was the fire of Gehenna: God blew the fire and heated the seven chambers of Gehenna. According to others, it was created on Sabbath eve, when Adam, overwhelmed by the darkness, began to fear that this also was a consequence of his sin. Whereupon the Holy One (blessed be He!) put in his way two bricks, which he rubbed upon each other, and from which fire came forth (Yer. Ber. 12a). Again, fire is one of the three elements (water, spirit, and fire), which preceded the creation of the world. The water became pregnant and gave birth to darkness; the fire became pregnant and gave birth to light; the spirit became pregnant and gave birth to wisdom (Ex. R. xv.; comp. Freudenthal, "Hellenistische Studien," i. 71). There are six kinds of fire: (1) fire that "eats" but does not "drink," that is, does not consume water—the common fire; (2) fire that "drinks" but does not "eat" (the fever of the sick); (3) fire that both eats and drinks (as that of Elijah, which both consumed the sacrifices and licked up the water; I Kings xviii. 38); (4) fire that eats wet as well as dry things (that arranged by the priests on the altar); (5) fire that quenches fire (that of Gabriel, who, according to tradition, was the angel sent down to the fiery furnace in order to save Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah; Dan. ii. 25); (6) fire that consumes fire (that of the Shekinah). In the First Temple alone was the fire of divine origin (Yoma 21b). The Torah given by God was made of an integument of white fire, the engraved letters were in black fire, and it was itself of fire and mixed with fire, hewn out of fire, and given from the midst of fire (Yer. Soṭah viii. 22d).The Torah has two fires, the oral and the written law (Cant. R. ii. 5); "in fact, all their words [the sages'] are as coals of fire" (Ab. ii. 10). Study of the Torah brings about certain effects like fire (Sifre, Deut. xxxiii. 2). The holy fire on the altar had the appearance of a lion—according to another, of a dog (Yoma 21b).

Fire descended from heaven when God desired to intervene in human affairs. It is thus that the keys of the Temple which Jeconiah wished to keep from Nebuchadnezzar are removed from earth (Lev. R. xix.). What the Bible calls "strange fire" the Talmudists denominate , fire of the "commoners" (ιδιῶται; Num. R. ii.). Though God promised not to visit earth again with a flood, He did not specify what kind; hence Abraham fears lest a flood of fire may still be sent (Gen. R. xxxix.). Mythical streams of fire are mentioned by the Rabbis (see Angelology), by which angels and men are consumed (Pesiḳ. R. 20). Fire-worshipers ("ḥabbarin") are known to the Talmudists (see Zoroastrianism). Regarding the benediction over fire or light, the Hillelites declare that fire emits many colors, and hence the plural should be used (, "the lights of fire"), while the school of Shammai pleads for the singular (), as fire holds only one light or color (Ber. 52b). Two fire-animals are mentioned, the salamander (Rashi to Sanh. 63b), and the "alitha," which extinguishes fire (Sanh. 108b). The salamander's blood protects against fire (Ḥag. 26a), as is proved by the escape of Hezekiah, whose father had devoted him to Moloch (Sanh. 63b). The later rabbis held the salamander to be the product of a fire burning seven years.

Fire for domestic and industrial uses receives much attention from the Rabbis in consequence of the Sabbath law. Quite a variety of fuel is mentioned—different kinds of wood, reeds, willows, fruit-stones, plaited weeds, pitch, sulfur, wax or cheese and fat, straw, stubble, flax; and various methods of building a fire, with shavings, reeds bound together, etc., are indicated. Stoves were known. The "warming-hall" in the Temple enjoyed certain immunities from the rigorous Sabbath law. An open coal-fire in a pan was used to bake cakes (Shab. i. 10, 22a, b). Torches of twigs were carried by way-farers at night (Ber. 43b) and on festive occasions. Great fires built on mountain-tops served as signals, and were used to announce the beginning of the new moon (Sanh. 11b). "Fire" in time came to denote "fever" (Yoma 29a; Shab. 66b, 67a, et al.; see Gehenna; Light).

S. S. E. G. H.
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