Brooklyn Tragedy - Are There Lessons to Be Learned?




(Important Note: I am not a rabbi or halachik expert; I offer this as a regular layman, horrified by tragedy and concerned, like everyone, for the safety of Jewish families)

Seven children from the Sassoon family horrifically and tragically died in a blaze at their Brooklyn home over shabbat.

According to the New York Fire Department, the fire started with the shabbat hot plate in the kitchen and there were no smoke detectors installed in the main part of the house. The children died in their bedrooms, and the mother and one daughter managed to jump from an upper floor - both now in critical condition.

The combination of the halachik requirements NOT to light a flame on shabbat, while requiring one to nevertheless eat hot food, has resulted in various methods of keeping cooked food hot over shabbat. These methods can involve safety risks.

It is hard to imagine rabbinical leadership giving up on or adapting either of these two conflicting principles, either the forbidding of lighting a flame, or the requirement to eat hot food, on shabbat, as these halachot have existed for thousands of years. Of the two, forbidding lighting fire on shabbat is the more severe - with the requirement to eat hot food as 'merely' a rabbinical response in confronting the Karaites, who did not accept the oral tradition and so sat in darkness and ate cold food on shabbat.

Although the Karaites no longer exist as a force, this rabbinical edict still does.

Furthermore, the risk to life (or saving a life) is a dominant factor underpinning all Jewish law. Saving a life even over-rules keeping the most fundamental laws (Torah Law) of shabbat.

And the obligation "to protect yourself very diligently" is a positive mitzva from the Torah.

This could give some halachik flexibility, for example rabbonim might chose to forbid people from eating hot food on shabbat day (particularly if they have already had hot food on Friday night), if they do not have smoke detectors installed, or if their hotplate & accessories (such as cloth covers which are widely used to keep the food warm on top of a hotplate, and can be flammable) have not passed fire safety standards.

Rabbonim could institute rules for having hotplates, smoke detectors and fire extinguishers checked regularly, as is the case for example with mezuzahs (where there are certainly no issues of life/death). Lag B'Omer could change its character (again), becoming an annual Fire Safety Day.

At a minimum, rabbonim are in a position to actively encourage their communities to view fire safety as a mitzva - not less important than, say, the ancient tradition of eating chollent.

The memory of the tragically struck down Sassoon family should be 'as a blessing'.

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