Food Preparation Practices for Jewish Sabbath Can Pose Hazardous Risks

Orthodox Jews observing the Sabbath – held from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday – will oftentimes leave a hot plate or a stove burner on overnight to keep food warm to avoid violating a stricture against working.

NEW YORK CITY – The seven children who were killed in Brooklyn early Saturday (March 21) when an electric hot plate malfunctioned and started a fast-moving blaze at their house was not the first deadly fire linked to the Sabbath ritual observed by Orthodox Jewish communities, according to the New York Times.

Orthodox Jews observing the Sabbath, carried out from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, will commonly leave a hot plate or a stove burner on overnight so that food can be kept warm without violating a stricture against working. 

In 2010, an 8-year-old boy was killed in a fire at a home just a few avenues over from the site of the deadly fire on Saturday in Midwood, a neighborhood in the south-central part of Brooklyn. Officials said a malfunctioning hot plate, left on during the festival of Sukkot, caused the fire.

In 2005, three boys died in an apartment fire in Williamsburg that officials said was started by stovetop burners left on during Passover, according to the newspaper.

The magnitude of the fire on Saturday renewed attention among Orthodox Jews on safety risks linked to the Sabbath and holiday observances that are compounded by the ages of the homes and a lack of working carbon monoxide (CO) alarms and smoke detectors. Most of the homes in Midwood were built in the early 1900s, before construction was subject to more stringent fire-safety laws, the newspaper reported.

Fire officials and Red Cross volunteers, as they have done in the past, sought on Saturday to reach out to the community. They set up a table to distribute smoke detectors, batteries and safety literature but were turned away by observers who said they could not take the materials on the Sabbath.

On Sunday, however, the line for the materials, which included coloring books and safety guidelines printed in English and Hebrew script, stretched down the block, the newspaper reported.

Along with stoves and hot plates, a fire official told the New York Times the community faced constant threats from overloaded electrical sockets and frayed wires on air-conditioners.

“You have to respect everyone’s beliefs – we go to an awful lot of Christmas tree fires,” Capt. Kevin Anderson of the Fire Department’s Fire Safety Education said. “We can follow our religious beliefs, but we can do it safely.”

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