May 19, 2024
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Yosef ben Simai’s Powerful Lesson in Kevod Shabbat

Kevod Shabbat

What a powerful lesson in kevod Shabbat from Yosef ben Simai! As typical in the Gemara (Shabbat 119a presents other examples), rabbis do not set the standard for honoring Shabbat but rather the laypeople. The kiddush Hashem and kevod Shabbat are further magnified when the lay individual is prominent and influential.

Yosef ben Simai, like the Biblical Joseph (and countless other examples of Jews who managed the financial affairs of non-Jewish leaders, such as Abarbanel and Alan Greenspan), managed the financial affairs of the Roman rulers of Eretz Yisrael. Shabbat 121a recounts how Yosef ben Simai created an enormous kiddush Hashem and kevod Shabbat in a very challenging situation: One point to clarify before we begin: In our times, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 334:26) states, fire always constitutes a pikuach nefesh and therefore requires an immediate response to do whatever is necessary to extinguish a fire as soon as possible.

Shabbat 121a

The Sages taught in a baraita: There was an incident that a fire ignited on Shabbat in the courtyard of Yosef ben Simai in a place called Shiḥin. And men came from the fortress [gistera] of Tzippori to extinguish the fire, because he was a steward [apotropos] of the king, and they wanted to help him. However, Yosef ben Simai would not allow them to extinguish the fire in deference to Shabbat; and a miracle transpired for him, and rain fell and extinguished the fire. That evening after Shabbat, he sent two sela to each of the soldiers who came to his aid, and fifty to their commander [iparkhos]. And when the Sages heard about this, they said: He need not have prevented them from extinguishing the fire, as we learned in the Mishna: If a gentile comes to extinguish a Jew’s fire on Shabbat, one may not say to him “extinguish” and “do not extinguish,” because responsibility for his rest is not incumbent upon the Jew; rather, the gentile may do as he pleases (the William Davidson translation of the Talmud).

Hashem’s Endorsement

Tzippori, as one can observe by visiting the archaeological site today, was a mixed Roman and Jewish city. It was a very important and bustling center during the post-Churban Bayit Sheini period. Jews and Romans lived side by side, where the two cultures very much brushed up close to one another.

With his heroic actions, Yosef ben Simai set a powerful example to his people: Shabbat, Torah, and Hashem reign supreme even under Roman rule. The temptation to allow the Romans to extinguish the fire was great. Yosef’s power stemmed from his wealth that was very much endangered by the fire. Instead of yielding to expediency, Yosef seized the opportunity to create a kiddush Hashem. He made a very public declaration that shemirat Shabbat is more important than his money and power.

To top off the kiddush Hashem, Yosef pays those who came to help him. Besides making sure they would come to his aid in the future if necessary, he made clear that his insistence that they do not extinguish the fire was not to avoid compensating his rescuers.

Hashem responds with a miracle as an endorsement of Yosef ben Simai’s behavior. Like the Yosef of old who resisted eishet Potifar, Yosef ben Simai does not succumb to the allure of power and wealth. At a time of political capitulation to the Romans, Yosef ben Simai refuses to yield an inch concerning Torah law. He is even willing to heroically go beyond what the halacha technically demands to honor Shabbat.

The Sages’ Observation

The chachamim, in their response, emphasize that Hashem made a miracle even though, strictly speaking, Yosef ben Simai’s refusing the gentile offer was not necessary. Hashem enthusiastically responds when we go the proverbial “extra mile” to honor Shabbat.


From Yosef ben Simai’s example, we see that willingness to sustain a tremendous financial loss to avoid what is, technically speaking, permitted on Shabbat creates great kevod Shabbat. Moreover, the kevod Shabbat is magnified when it is done publicly. A superb contemporary example is B&H, New York City’s large camera and electronics store, which closes its business website on Fridays at the onset of Shabbat, even on the heaviest business days such as the post-Thanksgiving “Black Friday.”

“Ki eshmera Shabbat Keil yishmereini,” Hashem richly rewards those who honor Shabbat. So may we continue to see our generation add to the list of great lay Jews who heroically create an enormous kiddush Hashem and kevod Shabbat when faced with the inevitable challenges of observing Shabbat in an alien environment.

Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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