Can I Extinguish My Gas Burner on Yom Tov? - Epoisode 64
Rav Avi: Hi, and welcome to Responsa Radio, where you ask and we answer questions of Jewish law in modern times! I'm Rabbi Avi Killip here with Rabbi Ethan Tucker, Rosh Yeshiva of Hadar, a center for higher Jewish learning based in New York City. How you doing?
Rav Eitan: I'm great, Avi, how are you? Think we got, we have a slightly explosive question today!
Rav Avi: Yeah, I'm excited about this question because we are fresh off of Passover, that just passed recently, and I had the opportunity to have this question come up with some friends who were in our home, so it feels like a very live question, and I'm really curious to hear what you have to say. Here's the question, it's a yom tov question. The questioner writes: "I know you are allowed to cook on yom tov. I understand how I can light the fire in my gas stove from an existing flame, but I am not clear on the process after. Can I turn off the gas stove on yom tov? If not, are there other ways to cook without leaving the gas on for a full day or two?" Now, I have to admit, I'm so struck by that last line, and I have to ask you, do people really leave the gas on for a full day or two? I've never personally seen that.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, I mean, there are people who do that. There are certainly people who do that regularly on shabbat, where they have some kind of blekh or surface that they put over a flame, and, yeah, you know, in theory it's a day or two — by the way, it could be for three, right, if you've got yom tov lining up on Thursday and Friday. So there is a practice of doing that. I think we can imagine all the reasons, both a little bit to do with cost but more with, kind of, just safety and, you know, concern of what does it mean to leave a flame on for that long, that lead people to, let's say, look for alternatives.
Rav Avi: Alright. So maybe we'll go back to the first — this person starts with "I know you are allowed to cook on yom tov." Maybe you'll give us just a sentence or two about why that is true, and then we can dive into the mechanics of it.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, it's sort of important background to this, which is to say, the Torah itself, when it lays out the restrictions to do with yom tov, actually, on the first day of Pesach, but used as a paradigm for all similar days, says kol melakhah lo ya'aseh bahem, you shouldn't do any melakhah on those days, any kind of forbidden labor, and that would normally involve cooking — akh asher yeakher lechol nefesh, hu livado ya'aseh lahem, but things that everyone kind of needs to do in order to eat, that you're allowed to do. So that creates a kind of carve-out of a few specific melakhot that would normally be forbidden on shabbat that you're allowed to do on yom tov, and the biggie of them is cooking, combined with the other one, which is the manipulation or use of fire. Okay? And in that sense, the use of fire and kind of making the fire bigger or even making the fire, you know, a little bit smaller for the purpose of cooking, right, like you have a recipe, it's like, it starts on medium high and then you've gotta lower it to low for a little and then put it up, so all that kind of stuff you're allowed to do on yom tov in order to cook your food and have it be fresh and taste good.
Rav Avi: We could translate this literally as "playing with fire."
Rav Eitan: Yes, exactly! So that's the cooking piece. Now, yeah, let's go to the next piece, I guess, in the questioner, which is, oh, I can light the fire in my gas stove from an existing flame, so that's based on a notion found in the Mishnah, which talks about, well, you shouldn't take two rocks together to bang them together on yom tov in order to create a spark. And that's understood by the Talmud to be because we are creating, like, a new fire out of nothing on yom tov, and while you're allowed to manipulate fire, you should start it before yom tov in some small form, and then be able to transfer it. So, you know, the common practice is people have a little candle, sometimes it's like a memorial candle or something like that, that just, you know, burns in a very controlled flame, and take a match or something else and use it to transfer over to the stove.
Rav Avi: Yeah, interestingly I have an instinct that probably at the time these texts were written, it was more work to create a flame than to transfer a flame, whereas now in my modern kitchen I feel like it's so much more work to transfer a flame than if I could just create a new flame.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, there's a lot of things that have shifted, and as we'll see in a minute, the biggest thing that shifted is sort of the possibility for essentially an unlimited supply of fuel to just automatically flow into your house. And that's gonna be part of what we'll have to play with here. But extinguishing fire is not allowed on yom tov. It's not allowed on yom tov because at least as a core activity, you don't need to do that for cooking food, right, that's just about putting something out, and so then it reverts to being in the category of, well, that's something you wouldn't do on shabbat, so you also don't do it on yom tov. So I want to back into this question with a little bit of a mysterious responsum by Rav Moshe Feinstein, one of the great 20th-century halakhic authorities in America, and work backwards from unpacking this mysterious line.
Rav Avi: Alright, what makes this so mysterious, we'll have to see!
Rav Eitan: He says, with respect to lowering the gas on yom tov, and whether that's better from just putting it out altogether, I don't really see why it would be any better to lower the gas than put it out entirely. And I have a hugely creative point on this, he writes, but I don't want to put it in writing.
Rav Avi: Alright!
Rav Eitan: And that's the end of the responsum. Okay? So what's going on here? What is he hinting at, and what is he talking about? Let's build up to what he might be referring to. As we said, you're allowed to transfer fire from an existing flame on yom tov, but you can't extinguish fire, and that's what he's referring to, right, someone saying, well, maybe I could lower it as opposed to extinguishing it — he's saying no. But both of those seem like they are forbidden.
Rav Avi: So either you could do either or none?
Rav Eitan: That seems to be what he's hinting, and then this mysterious, innovative point, a chiddush gadol that he's afraid to put into writing. So let's get at it by playing out actually what putting out a flame might look like. Because there's a couple different models here, and they're not necessarily all the same.
Rav Avi: Okay, great.
Rav Eitn: So, a first variant is, you just take water and you pour it on a flame and douse it. Okay. That's not allowed.
Rav Avi: Most extreme.
Rav Eitan: Forget it, there's no way that that is allowed to do as a conscious act of putting things out on yom tov. Okay. Let's talk about some other possibilities, though. Let's say I had a lamp that was lit. Not an electric lamp, like an oil lamp, alright? Think an old-fashioned oil lamp that has a well full of oil and a wick that comes out the side that is lit. Is it permitted for me to take a little container and put it into that lamp and take some of the oil out while it is lit, right? What do you think?
Rav Avi: I don't know, it sounds dangerous, I'll start with that.
Rav Eitan: Let's say it's a big enough thing that you can go far on one side and the oil's not hot, because again, it's with a wick. And I just, I take it out. And again, the reason you might want to do this is, well, oil's actually expensive — we're used to today having lights that we can just switch off or even shabbat-observant people having timers, right, where things go off — the best you can do on a timer with a lamp, as it were, is try to estimate the amount of oil you want while you're awake, but once you are going into the zone of sleep and the lamp is still burning, you might want to say, hey, I could just scoop some of the oil out without putting it out directly.
Rav Avi: Yeah, I'm gonna go with yes, you can do that.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, so that is not allowed, okay? And why? Your instinct is right, that doesn't feel like dousing it, okay, but it is still understood by rabbinic sources to be, yeah, but you know, that whole unit of oil was basically on fire, and you now took some of it out and thereby are basically causing this thing to be extinguished. Not as dramatically —
Rav Avi: It's a little less direct.
Rav Eitan: Right, not as dramatically, and not in one moment as dousing it with water, but nonetheless basically causing it to go out. Okay? A second thing that's like that, also forbidden, here those who go camping and are familiar with this, I think, will understand this intuitively: removing a burning log from a larger fire. Like, I have a campfire where there's all these logs that are on fire, okay — is it an act of kibui, of extinguishing, to take one of those logs and spread it out? So the answer is yes. And actually if you know, if you want to put out a campfire and don't want to completely douse it with water, the way you generally do that is you spread out the embers, you spread out the logs, and that way basically by not having the heat concentrated, it lowers the heat and everything goes out quicker.
Rav Avi: Right, right.
Rav Eitan: So it would also be an act of kibui.
Rav Avi: So playing with fire to grow it, okay. Playing with fire to shrink it, not okay.
Rav Eitan: Correct. Now, here's the case, though, that most interpreters of the Talmud do assume is completely permitted. Which is, there's a log near my campfire, but that has not yet caught fire. Can I move it away so that it won't catch fire, and it won't add more fuel to the fire? That is permitted to do on yom tov. Basically I'm saying, okay, these many logs have caught, this is going another hour and a half. But if those bigger logs on the side catch, this fire's gonna go for three hours, and I don't want that. Before they catch, I'm gonna move them away.
Rav Avi: Right. It sounds to me like we said you can make the fire bigger, you can't make it smaller, and this seems like you can do something to keep it from getting bigger.
Rav Eitan: That's correct. Okay? So, this is now the question. Let's say we take those principles, okay — I can't scoop oil out of a lamp that's on fire, I can't take a log that's on fire and move it away, but I can take a log that hasn't yet caught on fire and prevent it from doing so. So let's now think about a gas stove. How do we think about a gas stove? We have on the one hand flame on top of the gas that is coming out of the burner, right, at the site of the range. And then we've got, basically, a little piece of pipe or something that goes down to the knob that you turn to control the flow of gas in, and then past the knob, you've got a long pipe that is going out to your street, to the main that's bringing the gas in, and on some level to, like, the national gas grid. Okay? So, what do you think? We've got a flame on, let's say we turned it on even before yom tov, and I've got this dial now, that I want to know, can I turn it off once I've cooked my yom tov meal, or do I have to leave it on for three days or find some other way around it? So I don't know, what do you think it's like? Is it more like the oil and the lamp, or is it more like the log that hasn't caught fire? What's your instinct?
Rav Avi: Yeah. I do feel, actually, like one distinction between the log and the oil is that — although maybe you didn't agree with this — all the oil in that lamp is probably hot, and in some ways that makes me think that it's already on fire, whereas the log that's not yet caught flame is maybe not hot. I mean, maybe it's warm, but I don't think it's — it's not part of the fire yet. So then I guess the question would become, where's the — where is the gas hot in the pipe — I don't know, and I don't know the answer to that. I think the answer is no, I don't think it's hot, certainly, all the way under the ground into the middle of the city, you know, where the gas is coming from the pipeline across the country. In terms of, like, when does it get hot inside my stove, it would be an interesting question, yeah.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. So I think, actually, if you check the physics on this, you would in fact find that basically the liquid that's not, you know, really right next to the burning part of the wick is generally not already that hot, but I would play out what I think you're trying to get at with that, which is, I don't know, it doesn't feel like the entire national gas grid is on fire when I light my stove.
Rav Avi: Right.
Rav Eitan: And it does feel like there's a certain integrity to this bowl of a lamp that makes it reasonable that someone would look at that as all one unit. So that's, I would say, exactly the question of how to play this out. And so there's two ways of more or less reaching a basic conclusion around the gas stove. One is to say it's like the lamp, right? That is to say, at the end of the day, the gas that's flowing up into that flame in my range is in one continuous relationship with no obvious point, you know, way out of my building. And exactly what I'm doing when I turn that knob off on the range is essentially removing logs that are already on fire from the fire, or, sort of, scooping out, separating out, oil that was already on fire. So many people in fact, that's their approach, certainly anyone who leaves the gas on for three days, that's their approach. And the only way around that, then, is some kind of workaround.
So the standard thing that many people will say you should and can do in that kind of situation is, oh, well, you're allowed to boil water to have some tea on yom tov, and there's no particular limit on how full the pot of water can be when you boil it, so fill up a nice pot of water on the stove, have it boil over, happen to douse the gas, as soon as it does that, turn it off. And what will happen? You will have put out the flame incidentally by doing something that was totally permitted. And when you then turn the valve, then all you're doing is preventing unlit gas from flowing into your house, and that's perfectly fine to do. So in a way, oh, that's a clever workaround, and you don't have to sort of think creatively about the stove. I happen to hate things like that because I can't stand things that, like, require you to make a mess, but a lot of other people are, like, that doesn't — right, I never like when people fill the kiddush cup too high and spills all over.
Rav Avi: Ah, I love that.
Rav Eitan: Well, alright. So you might love this solution.
Rav Avi: I'm not sure how I feel about boiling water, but…
Rav Eitan: But that's, if that makes sense, that's a way you say, yeah, I cannot be directly involved in extinguishing a flame, turning the knob is a form of extinguishing — I am allowed, in the process, right, of doing something that's a yom tov legitimate activity like making a cup of tea, to have a consequence happen where it turns out, you know, it went out.
Rav Avi: Yeah. I'll say, I'll sort of, like, admit about myself — I actually love these kinds of ridiculous halakhic workarounds that lead you to do things that might seem to someone else just totally absurd, but have come to you to be part of your spiritual practice and actually add meaning to your holiday. So the concept of it, although it sounds absurd, not only does it not bother me, I'm actually kind of drawn to it — but it does strike me that even though we're doing it in this sort of backwards, accidental way, what we're doing is prohibition number one, it's the most extreme version of what we shouldn't do, which is pouring water on a fire! So there is something sort of alarming about that.
Rav Eitan: That's right. So I would say you've captured, actually, the two things that I don't like about it, just personally: one is, yeah, I think we feel a little differently about those things, like the more normal and smooth it can be, the more I like it, I never like, even, passing around, waiting for quiet to pass everyone around a piece of bread from, you know, the challah on Friday night —
Rav Avi: I love that sort of thing!
Rav Eitan: I would almost prever everyone had like two rolls at their own place. Okay. But the other thing is the second thing you raised, which is, yeah, if it were the only way to think about it, fine, but if there's another way to think about what's going on with that valve, it does feel kind of uncomfortable to me that in the name of avoiding kibui, extinguishing, you are going to do, even if only incidentally, the sort of act of kibui par excellence.
Rav Avi: Okay, right. So it seems like maybe you're gonna give us another way to think about it.
Rav Eitan: So, and this is where we'll get back, now, to Rav Moshe Feinstein — Rav Moshe Feinstein, with this cryptic line of, I have a huge, innovative point here but I don't want to put it in writing — that is generally understood by people familiar with his thinking and even sort of through oral traditions, you know, filtered from people who knew him, that this meant he thought you actually could just turn off the gas. He was afraid to write it because he felt people will experience this as kibui, they will experience it as the kind of extinguishing that he wants people to feel, oh my G-d, you're not allowed to do that on yom tov, but that actually he thinks this is not like extinguishing. Fortunately, even if we can't get 100% certainty on what that cryptic line read, Rav Bentzion Meir Chai Uziel, who was the first Sephardic chief rabbi of the State of Israel — Rav Uziel actually writes explicitly along responsum permitting just that. In writing.
Rav Avi: He has the same chiddush gadol, the same big idea.
Rav Eitan: Exactly. And he says yeah, this is like a log that's not yet caught on fire. Right? Of course the rest of that gas flow that's coming in is not caught on, it's just waiting to rush in as soon as you burn the piece that you're burning. And there he doesn't quite articulate it that way, but I will put it this way: to the extent you say, okay, but where do I draw the line? Right? What's the part that's on fire, as opposed to the part that's not, it strikes me that that is exactly the valve, right? Meaning, that is what the valve is: it is the line between the thing that is now in your burner as opposed to the thing that is not in your burner yet, and therefore Rav Uziel would say no, when you turn that off, though you look at it, maybe, superficially, as, oh, I just put out the flame, that's actually not what you're doing. Pay attention and you'll see, for a split second it keeps burning after you close that valve in a way that doesn't happen when you douse it with water, because what's actually happening is the last bit of gas that just made it past the valve before you closed it is burning. And all you've done is stopped the new gas from coming in. So if you follow Rav Uziel's approach, yeah, not only would you say it's unnecessary to do the boiling-over method, you might feel like that's problematic.
Rav Avi: That's much dicier.
Rav Eitan: Right. So this is a really interesting case of, and I think you've raised, there might also be sort of, like, personality-of-halakhah considerations here, like, how weird do you like things to be, but it's also an interesting case where there's sort of a conceptual question and answer that has to be addressed that's almost prior to knowing what's the stricter or more lenient position. Which is to say, from the perspective of the boiling-over people, Rav Uziel's position is much more lenient. Like, he's allowing you to just say, I want this fire off now, I'm turning this valve, and it's off, and that's shockingly lenient. From Rav Uziel's perspective, once you've actually determined that you think it's totally fine to turn off the valve, it may be shockingly lenient to give people a workaround to douse the flame in water. And so I think it's an interesting thing, we're often trained to think about, well, could we be more lenient on x, y, and z — this is a good example where I think that it really is is, what do we think extinguishing is about in light of the halakhic tradition, and how do we understand what we're doing in our stoves? And that, I think, will produce the answer.
Rav Avi: I think it's maybe even actually one step back from that, which is, it's not really a question at all of what do we think it means to extinguish a flame — it's a question of what is happening in a gas stove, is it that you have a flame that will burn until you stop it, i.e. extinguish, or is it that what you have in any given moment is a flame that's about to go out unless you feed it. And you are allowed to feed it, so you're continuously, the entire time that you're cooking, feeding the flame, you know, one instance's worth of oil, wood, you know, fuel that it needs, and then all you are doing is stop feeding the flame, as opposed to extinguishing. There's actually no extinguishing at all in that version.
Rav Eitan: Right, and I think again, this goes to these sort of devices and technologies that we have in our house that just provide an unlimited supply, whether it's a faucet that if you leave on it'll never stop running, a light switch, that if you leave it on the electricity never stops coming, or the gas that never stops coming, actually forces you to ask those questions in a way that we never would have asked those questions before, right? The Talmud is only going to really deal with cases of, at most, the log that's already there but didn't catch, you move away, but it's not like there's some machine that's adding logs without you doing anything every 30 minutes. And I do think that puts some pressure on developing some theory, which I think Rav Uziel is trying to do here, of, there has to be some sort of halakhah for the automated world in a way that has its counter pushback of saying, no, you're not actively doing something here — you're just preventing something from continuing to happen on its own.
Rav Avi: Right. Well, I'll say this, thank G-d we have a podcast so that we were able to share this information without writing it down!
Rav Eitan: Love it.
Rav Avi: Responsa Radio is a project of the Hadar Institute and Jewish Public Media. Thanks to Anna Leah Bernstein Simpson for producing this podcast, and to Noa Gendler for editing this episode. Have a halakhic question you'd like answered on the show? Email us at [email protected] You can also leave us a message at (215) 297-4254.