This chapter mainly deals with a single question: How is one to conduct oneself when a fire breaks out on Shabbat? The halakha maintains that it is prohibited to extinguish a fire on Shabbat, even in a situation of great financial loss. Therefore, the question arises: What is permissible to do in the case of a fire? Under what conditions is it permissible to rescue materials from a fire on Shabbat?
The decrees instituted by the Sages with reference to rescuing objects from a fire on Shabbat are the source of many of the questions pertaining to this matter. These decrees are based upon the concern that if one is permitted to evacuate his goods, he may, in his panic, perform the kind of extinguishing that is biblically prohibited, both because of his preoccupation with the act of evacuation and because people become panicked when their property is at stake. Therefore, the Sages permitted the rescue of domestic utensils and even foodstuffs in only limited quantities. Additionally, there is discussion of the numerous details related to permissible methods and stratagems that enable the rescue of more than the very minimum fixed by the law.
Another question related to rescuing materials from a fire is the problem of sacred writings and other holy objects. Because of their sanctity, the Sages permitted many procedures for rescuing them that may not be performed for other objects. According to many opinions, the Sages went to great extremes to grant permission in this matter, ruling leniently even when there are risks of violating rabbinic prohibitions, and sometimes even biblical prohibitions, because of their great concern for salvaging a wide variety of sacred materials.
The opening Mishna teaches:
With regard to all sacred writings, one may rescue them from the fire on Shabbat, whether they are read in public, e.g., Torah or Prophets scrolls, or whether they are not read in public, e.g., Writings scrolls. This ruling applies even though they were written in any foreign language.
In the Jerusalem Talmud it is explained that the halakha is in accordance with Rabbi Shimon’s opinion that, in general, extinguishing a fire is prohibited by rabbinic and not by Torah law. Therefore, it is permitted to douse a fire in order to rescue sacred books.