If God sent the fire, he owes us firemen

Citing halachah in support of outrageous religious discourse has long been a speciality of the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, 90-year-old Ovadia Yosef, spiritual mentor of Shas, the strictly-Orthodox political party with 11 members in the Knesset and a major role in Binyamin Netanyahu's government coalition.

Israel's tragic conflagration last weekend was a godsend for the rabbi. And he did not disappoint. In his sabbath sermon, when the Carmel flames were near their peak, he chose to quote from the Babylonian Talmud: "Fires only happen in a place where Shabbat is desecrated". In the blaze, "homes were ruined, entire neighbourhoods wiped out, and it is not arbitrary. We must repent, keep Shabbat appropriately."

His top man in the Knesset and long-time acolyte, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, did not deny these words. But, he said, everybody who heard Rabbi Yosef understands that "he is in tears and speaks with pain".

Mr Yishai should have the sensitivity to tread carefully. He, after all, is the minister responsible for Israel's firefighting forces. He is an able advocate. Wearing his hat as chairman of Shas, he got the cabinet to line up behind a bill, urged by Rabbi Yosef, to find £2 million of taxpayers' money to provide stipends for non-earning (nor, therefore, taxpaying) yeshivah students who, as students, are exempt from military service.

Yeshivah students should have to fight fires

Figures are hard to come by, but the best estimates I have seen are that there are 70,000 yeshivah students entitled to stipends from the public purse. The entire Israeli firefighting force, it seems, is made up of some 1,500 members, for a population of 7.7. million. With the firemen working one 24-hour shift on and two off, there are about 500 people on duty for the whole country at any one time - and not one firefighting aerial vehicle for any of them.

Somewhere here there is surely room for a deal (Shas usually loves these, after all). What should not be beyond the Interior Ministry is to devise compulsory service as firefighters for a proportion of those yeshivah students the government would otherwise be asked
to bankroll.

Immediately, a potential force of thousands becomes available and, with Shas backing "their boys", the funds should also be there for the kind of firefighting equipment that will give Israel a better chance should another potentially murderous fire break out. Surely there is something in the halachah which would allow this to receive the rabbi's blessing.

Geoffrey Paul is a former editor of the JC

Last updated: 1:45pm, December 9 2010