The images from Brooklyn and Israel are stunning in their heartbreak: Seven open graves, awaiting seven small caskets. A grieving father’s unbearable anguish. And the stunned looks on the faces of the neighbors, as they absorb the news that seven children from one Jewish family in Midwood, Brooklyn, were killed in a house fire, while only their mother and an eighth child managed to escape.
The Sassoon family’s tragedy felt doubly obscene in that it came over Shabbat. Reports focused on the family’s use of a faulty hot plate, used by Shabbat-observant people — Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike — to keep food warm according to the traditional rules of Shabbat. In the strange sport of finger-pointing, some have blamed the practice itself. One headline read, “Orthodox Jewish custom poses deadly fire danger.” A letter in a daily newspaper suggested that rabbis call for “a religious injunction against the heating or warming of food using electric appliances even if they were turned on before the Sabbath.”
Such suggestions, perhaps well-intentioned, somehow bear the whiff of anti-religious, and even anti-Jewish, sentiment. In each of the past five years, house fires caused an estimated average of 2,650 deaths, and were caused by all sorts of behaviors, risky and benign. According to the National Fire Protection Agency, Christmas trees are responsible for an average of 230 home fires per year. Such fires cause an average of six deaths, 22 injuries, and $18.3 million in direct property damage annually.
The answer, obviously, is not to ban Christmas trees, or hot plates, but to educate the public about best practices for keeping their families safe: installing and maintaining smoke detectors, checking for frayed wiring, having an escape plan and practicing it, etc. The Jewish tradition finds meaning in rituals. But perhaps the greatest mitzva of all is preserving life. Let this tragedy serve as a reminder for all of us to celebrate our heritage safely.