Updated 4th January 2016
Judaism Fire Safety: Reducing Fire Risks on the Sabbath
Submitted by Rabbi Dovid Sears of Breslov Center New York, USA and Solitude-hisbodedus blogspot Breslov Center of New York: http://breslovcenter.blogspot.com/ Jewish Meditation Retreat: http://solitude-hisbodedus.blogspot.com/
On the Jewish Sabbath, Saturday, March 21, 2015, a fire in Brooklyn, New York, claimed the lives of seven children and left two other people in critical condition. Media reports stated that flames engulfed the family’s two-story, brick-and-wood home in Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood—not far from where my wife and I live—after a hot plate left on a kitchen counter set off the fire that trapped the children and badly injured their mother and another sibling. The hot plate had been left on for the Sabbath (which lasts from sundown Friday until early Saturday night).
Many religious Jews use a hotplate, warming tray or crock-pot to keep food warm for the Sabbath meals, obeying the prohibition against lighting or extinguishing a fire on the holy day, or turning electrical appliances on or off. Therefore, all such appliances must be set up before the onset of the Sabbath. This family’s hot plate apparently malfunctioned, setting off a fire that trapped the children in their second-floor bedrooms as they slept.
Of course, an electrical fire may happen without any negligence. But we must do our best to insure against such tragedies by taking all proper precautions. Some of these precautions are a matter of common sense: keeping the hot plate (or a burner or burners on the kitchen range covered by a metal sheet, known in Yiddish as a “blech”) away from flammable objects, such as paper containers, cloth or paper towels, curtains, etc. But another precaution is to ensure that hotplates and electrical appliances are in good working order, and to replace them before they get too old and run the risk of malfunctioning.
The Jewish public should also be familiar with the religious laws related to outbreaks of fire on the Sabbath or festivals. Although Sabbath desecration by a Jew is a strict prohibition (in fact, observance of both the positive and negative commandments related to the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments), the preservation of human life takes precedence.
To cite only a few relevant laws from contemporary authority Rabbi Yehoshua Y. Neuwirth, author of Shemirath Shabbath: A Guide to the Practical Observance of the Sabbath, as translated by M. Grangewood (see there, Vol. II, Chapter 41, at length):
PUTTING OUT A FIRE WHERE THERE IS DANGER TO HUMAN LIFE
- a. If a fire breaks out and there is even the remotest fear that human life may be in danger, one must do all one can to see that it is put out.
- This would be the case if, for example, there were a fear that the fire could spread to a nearby house where there is an elderly or sick person, or a baby, who cannot be taken out in time.
- In such circumstances, one may 1) put out the fire oneself, doing whatever is necessary to that end, such as disconnecting the electricity supply, or 2) telephone the fire department.
- Even if it afterwards transpires that ten different people have separately telephoned the fire department, each of them is assured of a worthy reward from the Almighty for his good intentions.
- The rule set out in this paragraph ought to be given the widest publicity.
- One may call the fire department when there is a fear of danger to life, even if one knows that Jewish police officers will come with them to investigate the cause of the conflagration and will make note of their findings on Shabbath…
- If a fire breaks out in a place where there will certainly be no danger to human life, it is forbidden to extinguish it on Shabbath…
[In the same work, Chapter 32, Rabbi Neuwirth states:]
- a. One should violate the Shabbath, in the hope of saving a human life, whenever a disaster or accident occurs, or if a dangerous situation arises.
b) This can happen, for instance,
i) when a fire breaks out
ii) when flooding takes place
iii)when a severe electric shock has been sustained,
iv) when electric wiring is exposed and there is a risk that someone will touch it, endangering his life…