Question: Is it correct that if one sees one’s house engulfed in flames on Shabbat that one may not extinguish the blaze?
Answer: Let us first begin by explaining the basis of this law and we shall then proceed to the Halacha as it applies today.
The Laws of Extinguishing a Fire on Shabbat
If a fire breaks out on Shabbat, one may not extinguish it. Even if one sees one’s entire house engulfed in flames, one may not extinguish the blaze. Our Sages likewise decreed that one may not tell a non-Jew to extinguish the fire on one’s behalf, for were they to have permitted telling a non-Jew to do extinguish the blaze, the Jew would be so frantic about his monetary loss that he would do so himself. (See Rabbeinu Nissim in his commentary on Shabbat 145a.)
Permissible Methods of Extinguishing a Fire on Shabbat
One may hint to a non-Jew to extinguish a fire on Shabbat, such as by saying, “Whoever extinguishes this fire shall not lose out on payment.”
Similarly, it is permissible to extinguish the fire in an indirect manner. Therefore, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l rules that it is permissible to place plastic bags filled with water around the fire and when the fire reaches them, the water will be released from the bags and extinguish the flames.
Others allow extinguishing the fire in a case of financial loss by splashing water upwards and the extinguishing will only occur on the water’s way down (see Minchat Shlomo, Chapter 31).
Additionally, any place where there are holy books, such as volumes of the Chumash, Talmud, and the like, one may tell a non-Jew to extinguish the fire even in a direct manner so that a disgrace of holy writings does not ensue (Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch, Chapter 334, Section 18 quoting a Gaon). Based on this, the Misgeret Ha’Shulchan (a commentary on the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch) writes that any fire which breaks out in a Jewish home may be extinguished because of the Mezuzot affixed on the doorways of the rooms in the house which may burn; the Mezuzot retain the law of holy scriptures and may be saved by telling a non-Jew to extinguish the fire.
Nevertheless, nowadays it has become customary that when a fire breaks out on Shabbat, one calls the fire department and they send firefighters to put out the fire. Let us now explain the reason why this is permitted:
Extinguishing Fires Which Break Out Nowadays
Clearly, if there is even a doubt of a life-threatening situation as a result of a fire which breaks out, one may certainly extinguish it on Shabbat, for nothing stands in the way of a life-threatening circumstance. Based on this, Hagaon Harav Nissim Karelitz zt”l writes in his Sefer Chut Shani (Chapter 35, Section 3) that since nowadays there are gas tanks, gas lines, or containers of gasoline in close proximity to the houses in our communities, if a fire breaks out, there is a good chance that the fire may spread quickly, reach these objects, and, G-d-forbid, cause a great explosion, this constitutes a very real life-threatening situation and people in the area may be harmed very seriously by the fire; it is therefore permissible to pick up the phone and call the fire department to come and extinguish the blaze in order to preempt the possibly perilous situation that may occur.
Similarly, the Aruch Ha’Shulchan (Chapter 334) deduces from the fundamentals of this law as stated in the Gemara that in any situation where damage may be caused to the public, it is permissible to extinguish a fire on Shabbat. Since nowadays the houses are built in close proximity to the street, sidewalk, and other public domains and damage from the fire is very likely, it is therefore even permissible for a Jew to extinguish the blaze.
Summary: In principle, one may not extinguish a fire on Shabbat. However, the Poskim write that nowadays, when there is almost always a danger to the entire neighborhood if the blaze is not extinguished, one may call the fire department on Shabbat, for nothing stands in the way of a life-threatening circumstance.