Recently, a family home in Tennessee burned to the ground while firemen watched—because the owner had not paid his $75 yearly fee to the fire department. I'm wondering what Torah law has to say about that.


The Torah doesn't speak explicitly about a house burning, but it does discuss another case from which we may deduce the necessary implication:
"Do not observe the ox of your brother or his sheep astray and hide from them. You must surely return them."1

The Talmud applies this rule to real estate as well: in a case where one sees a river overflowing and endangering another person's property, he must attempt to stop the water by whatever means are available.2 The law is cited in the Code of Jewish Law as a final ruling.3

In general terms, the law means that each member of a society is responsible to save the property of every other member. Obviously, a fire would be no different.

The ruling also states that the owner of the property is responsible to pay all expenses incurred. Several complications arise in this regard, but that's beyond our scope here.

In the case of the firemen in Tennessee, the question of civil disobedience arises. Would they be breaking a law by fighting the fire? Would they be stealing from the city by using the fire equipment to fight the fire? (It should be considered that the owner and his neighbor both offered to cover all expenses.)

It must be noted that Torah law recognizes those laws which a society creates for the benefit of its members. It would seem, however, that there is a requirement that these laws be just to the individual as well as to the group as a whole. It may be no coincidence that this event hit the news on the week when we read the Torah portion that relates the destruction of Sodom.4 The Talmud provides a fascinating description of Sodom as a city where cruel and perverse laws were instituted for the ostensible benefit and protection of the society as a whole.5

Additionally, the term "Sodom-like" is applied to those who say, "What's mine is mine, what's yours is yours,"6 or someone who kicks a squatter off his vacant property.7 In other words, "going by the book." The message is that such an attitude does not make for a sustainable society.

There is much more that could be examined and discussed here—these are only my immediate musings.