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fire

by Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis
Hebrew "aish." Fire, one of the four elements in classical physics, is both a symbol of beneficence and destruction, as well as a manifestation of the numinous. It is also a symbol of passion, divine presence, and regeneration. The theurgic sacrificial offerings of ancient Israel were performed using the medium of fire.

Fire is frequently a manifestation of divine wrath, but also of divine presence. God makes promises to Abraham in the form of fire (Gen. 15). Sodom and Gomorrah meet a fiery end (Gen. 19). God appears in a burning bush (Ex. 3), rains fiery hail down upon the Egyptians (Ex. 8), God sends a fiery angel to protect the Israelites from pursuit by their former masters (Ex. 13) and later to guide the people in the desert. Elijah is closely linked to fire, being able to smite soldiers of King Ahaziah (I Kings 1) and ignite offerings (I Kings 18) with heavenly fire. According to one rabbinic tradition, fire was created on the second day of creation. Another claims that a primordial fire preceded light, and gave birth to it.

Aish zara, or "alien fire," was forbidden in the sacrificial cult. The exact nature of this fire, whether it was fire introduced from an outside source or fire offered at unsanctioned times, is not clear. Its use by Nadav and Abihu triggered their fatal punishment by divine fire from heaven. Subsequent to this disaster, during the time of the Tabernacle, the altar fire descended from heaven to consume the sacrificial offerings. This celestial fire transferred to the Temple and burned uninterrupted, rain or shine, until the apostasy of King Menasseh. This, then, was a positive manifestation of the same power that killed Nadav and Abihu. Sages experiencing revelatory moments appear to be ringed in fire.

The Bible describes God as a "consuming fire." In the seven heavens, fire serves in the place of matter as the fundamental substance that gives form to reality. The divine chariot is wreathed in fire. Many angels, such as Metatron and Gabriel, are composed of fire. There is even a special class of fiery angels called serafim, and the sweat that pours from them in their labors creates the River of Fire (Nahar Dinur) that flows around heaven. The palaces of heaven are made of supernal fires. Even the primordial Torah itself is made of white fire and letters of black fire.

On the down side, the fire of Gehenna burns sixty times hotter than earthly fire. There are five different kinds of fire in Gehenna: fires that consume but do not drink; drink but do not consume; drinks and consumes; neither drink nor consume, and a fire that consumes fire (BHM 1:147). Demons also can have a fiery appearance. Rashi claims that fire is one of the things demons eat for sustenance.

(T. Yoma 21b; Pes. 54a; Zev. 61b; Ber. 57b; PdRE 4; Chag. 27a; Ex. R. 15:22; Num. R. 2.23; P. Shek. 6:1; Sefer Chasidim)

Article copyright 2004 Geoffrey Dennis.


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