"…The insinuation that observant Jews engage in dangerous Sabbath practices and are indifferent to the hazards of fire and electricity is a pernicious one. To be sure, smoke detectors – which fire officials suspect were absent on the main floor of the Brooklyn house – are life-savers. But they are not a Sabbath issue. All homes should have detectors on each floor, and, indeed had they been installed on the main floor of this house, where the fire broke out in the kitchen, that might well have prevented the fire from spreading before the occupants became aware of it.…"
Above: Rabbi Avi Shafran
Former Forward editor-in-chief JJ Goldberg has a regular blog/column on the Forward's website. Saturday night, he wrote about the horrific house fire that killed seven haredi siblings and critically injured their mother and older sister.
The house had no smoke alarms on the main floor or the second floor where the family slept. A Shabbat hotplate had been left on to keep food – presumably hamim (cholent) warm for the Shabbat late morning/early afternoon meal.
That hotplate – known as a plata in Israeli parlance – malfunctioned, either because of a manufacturing defect, or wear, or misuse, or some combination of all three. That sparked a fire that spread without being detected because of the lack of smoke alarms. It trapped the family on the second floor with no way out other than jumping. (There were no escape rope ladders that some people keep on the second and third floors of their homes, either). Two family members were able to jump. Seven, all children, were not and died.
Goldberg's blog post listed several other Shabbat fires caused by platas, Shabbat candles, Hanukkah candles and the like, and it also mentioned the babies killed, maimed and sickened by metzitzah b'peh (MBP), the dangerous mouth-to-bleeding-penis sucking done by haredi mohels after removing the baby's foreskin. (Yes, "oral suction" is a more distanced – and far less descriptive – term.)
For that, Goldberg was attacked just as I was attacked (see many of the comments here) for doing essentially the same thing a bit before him.
The Director of Public Affairs (i.e., the spokesman) for the North American haredi umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Avi Shafran, has a history of calling bloggers Nazis and of denying child sex abuse in haredi schools is a significant problem. (He even claimed the incidence rate of child sex abuse was lower in haredi communities than elsewhere because haredim are trying to be holy while everyone else is essentially trying to get laid.) Shafran lashed out at Goldberg (in space provided by Ha'aretz, no less) arguing what he and others were doing is Orthodox bashing:
Among the anguished messages I received Saturday night after news spread of the horrific deaths of seven young children in a Sabbath fire in Brooklyn was one from a media-savvy colleague at Agudath Israel of America. “We should brace ourselves,” he wrote, “for some Orthodox-bashing.”
What he meant was to expect a slew of criticism aimed at those who observe the Jewish Sabbath laws and customs, which include leaving a Sabbath-stew, or cholent, cooking over the Sabbath. The millennia-old practice allows for a hot dish on Sabbath afternoon, when turning appliances on or off is forbidden by Jewish religious law.
My colleague was right. “Orthodox Jewish custom poses deadly fire danger” read the headline of an article in the New York Post the following day. “A Deadly Plague of Shabbat Fires” was how J.J. Goldberg titled his piece in the Forward that same day.
Mr. Goldberg noted that the recent fire was “at least the fourth deadly blaze in the borough resulting from Sabbath and holiday observance in the past 15 years” and wryly cited the New York Times’ observation that, near the site of the tragedy, “hours after the blaze,” fire officials “hand[ed] out safety literature” but, it being the Sabbath, there were no takers. The very next day, however, the line for materials, according to the same newspaper, “stretched down the block.”
The insinuation that observant Jews engage in dangerous Sabbath practices and are indifferent to the hazards of fire and electricity is a pernicious one. To be sure, smoke detectors – which fire officials suspect were absent on the main floor of the Brooklyn house – are life-savers. But they are not a Sabbath issue. All homes should have detectors on each floor, and, indeed had they been installed on the main floor of this house, where the fire broke out in the kitchen, that might well have prevented the fire from spreading before the occupants became aware of it.
There are additional factors that seem to lie at the heart of this deadly conflagration, including the fact that the wood-framed house was old, built well before the institution of modern fire codes. And then there is the actual device suspected of having sparked the fire: a malfunctioning hotplate.
Presumably, the hotplate, or portable stovetop, was not Sabbath observant, or even Jewish. And while portable stovetops, like regular stovetops, indeed present dangers that need to be addressed, leaving a pot on a low flame on a covered stovetop or hotplate (duly distanced from flammable material and out of young children’s reach) is not inherently dangerous. During the 15 years that Mr. Goldberg cites, literally millions of cholent pots simmered safely over the Sabbath in Brooklyn alone. As did many millions more worldwide.
If a manufacturer’s appliance is prone to malfunction, that is a dangerous matter. But the fingers here seem to be wagging not at any company but at a community.
I don’t mean to minimize the potential hazards faced by observant Jews. Jewish observance, which entails candles on Sabbaths and holidays and food kept on stoves or in ovens for long periods of time, demands special vigilance. Every ultra-Orthodox Jew I know, though, makes sure that burning candles are placed out of reach of children, that smoke detectors are present on every floor and that appliances are used carefully and responsibly. Tragedies like the recent one in Brooklyn will certainly only reinforce such caution.
But there are numerous casualties every year in non-Jewish neighborhoods, too, from fires caused by things like barbeque grills, frayed or overtaxed extension cords, overloaded power strips, portable heaters, irons and other electrical appliances. People have been seriously scalded by malfunctioning coffee makers and fatal home fires ignited by Christmas lights. Yet Keurig culture and Christian customs somehow haven’t merited the sort of alarmed editorials we’ve seen of late about Jewish observance.
Why is that? I have a theory, and it’s not a pretty one. It seems to me that there is an amorphous, sort of default, resentment of Orthodox Jews and Jewish observance underlying much of “enlightened” society today. It doesn’t generally express itself; that would be uncouth. But when an opportunity arises for it to bubble up and belch forth, it happily does so.
Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong. But I feel secure in suggesting the following:
Observant Jews should be spurred by the loss of seven precious children to make sure that their own homes are safe places, on Sabbaths and every day.
Others should feel the community’s pain, offer their condolences and refrain from indicting us for our observances.
And all of us, if we are believers, should introspect and try to understand what Divine message to us about our own personal and communal lives might be hidden in the recent communal calamity, and endeavor to do what we feel we need to do to improve ourselves.
Goldberg has another blog post today where he essentially answers much of Shafran's criticism, which Goldberg had apparently had not yet seen:
…Readers had a variety of objections. Some noted that driving caused more deaths than Sabbath candles and sarcastically wondered why I didn’t address that. Others saw my mention of Metzitzah B’Peh as evidence that my agenda was to demonize ultra-Orthodox Jews or Orthodox Jews more broadly, since I was attacking practices characteristic of those communities.
A few points. First, it should be noted that neither Orthodox nor ultra-Orthodox Jews have a monopoly on Sabbath observance. I could say this in an indignant, wounded tone, but that would be beside the point. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t attacking Sabbath observance. I was noting that some of the practices we cherish carry risks and therefore require caution — and education. We tend to rely on common sense, but that isn’t enough.
Why, one reader asks, didn’t I mention auto accidents? Because they have the public’s attention already. Millions of dollars are spent each year by government, non-profits and the auto industry itself to minimize the dangers and save lives. Greater exercise of common sense could save those lives, but we do not rely on common sense alone. As a society, we do not hold poor judgment to be a capital offense. We correct our neighbors’ oversights, not out of hatred but from love.
The Good Book says:
הוכח תוכיח את עמיתֿך
ולא תישא עליו חטא
“Thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbor, and not bear sin because of him” (Lev. 19:17). (I always try to keep that verse in mind when I’m reporting.)
Enormous efforts go into ensuring that cars are safe, both at the manufacturing end and in the licensing and inspection process. These are enormously complicated machines, yet the public knows enough to try and ensure its vehicles are as safe as possible. The same is true of swimming pools and backyard grills.
Electric hotplates are much simpler devices. They require no great technological skill to check for the most common dangers, mainly in frayed cords. As for candles, most accidents seem to result from leaving them unattended near wooden cabinets, or standing unsteadily and at risk of toppling. These are things that can be avoided.
Accidents happen mainly because the public is not educated. We simply don’t discuss Shabbos safety. We should. But if we take each incident as an isolated case, without allowing ourselves an awareness of the trendline, we lull ourselves into apathy and neglect.
Why bring up Metzitzah B’Peh? Because it is a much more limited problem, and yet it gets enormous attention. Millions of Jews live in homes with Sabbath candles, and several times that number in homes with Hanukkah menorahs. The toll in death and injury is considerably greater — bearing in mind that we don’t know the full extent. And yet we don’t discuss the risks and teach safety.
The tragedy of the Sassoon family is a tragedy we all share — not only because all Jews are responsible for one another, not only because we are family, but also because it could have been any of us.
It’s a pity that so many Jews respond to bad news and questioning of our actions by circling the wagons, seeing only enemies and shreying gevalt. It’s especially troubling because it all too frequently prevents us from listening to the criticism, considering the advice and seeing how things could be improved. All the more so when children’s lives are at risk. They’re all our kids.
But we can go even further. Hotplates sold as Shabbat hotplates are often not UL listed, They're sold to distributors in the US by Israeli companies who have them cheaply (and often shoddily) made in places like Bangladesh. Some are even Israeli-made but are still shabbily constructed.
These platas are often endorsed by haredi rabbis who say they are kosher for Shabbat use.
But while they may not violate any Shabbat halakha, they are not safe.
We don't know for sure if it was one fo those platas that killed those seven kids in Brooklyn early Saturday, but we do know that it's likely.
One of the things haredim could do is take a new look at how they observe Shabbat.
The only reason we eat hot food on Shabbat morning is because the Karaites did not do so because they viewed the use of any fire as a violation of Shabbat law. The rabbinic Judaism of 1100 years ago needed to make sure that its followers were distinct from this large group of Jews the rabbis saw as heretics or near-heretics. To defend the Talmud (which allowed fires started before Shabbat to be used on Shabbat in an indirect way) that the Karaites rejected, the rabbis instituted a practice of eating hot food on Shabbat morning.
But in those days, food was kept warm in an outdoor oven or in a communal oven – often the oven of the local bakery. A close friend of mine remembers as a small child in Bnei Brak going with his grandmother to the local bakery on Shabbat morning to get their pot of cholent out of the oven. And with dozens of other neighbors, they took that cholent pot and carefully walked it back to the family's home and served it.
The idea that every home would have an oven inside with a blech on top of the stove or a plata left on over Shabbat was not something the rabbis of the Talmud envisioned. But here we are, unsafe Shabbat platas exist, and many haredim and other Orthodox Jews use them.
One of the reasons for this is that the eruv (the halakhic legal fiction used to allow Jews to carry outside on Shabbat) has largely fallen out of favor in the haredi community while, at the same time, the idea of putting covered pots of fleishig cholent into a pareve baker's oven or the like is completely foreign to most of today's rabbis and their followers. That their ancestors did this for perhaps 1500 or so years, and that the bread baked Sunday morning after the Sabbath was over was still considered to be pareve is something the average Orthodox and haredi Jew would be shocked by today.
But perhaps we need to return to something like that system. If not, we should use modern technology to find ways to insulate food and keep it warm without using electricity or fire for the 14 to 18 hours between the beginning of Shabbat and the late morning meal. Or the rabbis could simply say that the fight against the Karaites took place a long time ago. Rabbinic Judaism eventually won, and there is no longer a need to prove our difference by eating hot food on Shabbat morning. And because hotplates and platas and blechs left on for 25 (or more) hours inside modern housing are inherently dangerous no matter how well made, we're going to say not to use them. In other words, bye, bye cholent.
All of these choices are preferable to having anyone, let alone seven innocent children, die in a Shabbat house fire.
It's long past time for haredi and Modern Orthodox rabbis to face up to that reality and choose. Will it be human life? Or will they choose to protect a custom that has grown more dangerous than its founders ever could have envisioned?
As for Shafran, note his deception. He does not mention rabbinically-approved Shabbat hotplates and does not mention that no secular hotplate manufacturer recommends their product be left unattended or be left on for 25 or more hours. In fact, the opposite is true. Commercially available hotplates not made for the haredi community all carry warnings about leaving the device unattended or leaving it on for an excessive period of time.
That Shafran is dishonest, of course, is not news.