Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Protecting the Jewish home from fire

The recent horrors in Brooklyn have united Jews in sorrow. They are also a tragic example of how quickly fire can sweep through a home and the devastation it can leave behind. In addition to Shabbat, practically every Jewish holiday has a connection to fire. These sites provide potentially lifesaving advice for enjoying our traditions safely.

Tragic results can occur year round when fire is not given the respect it demands. Some recent examples:

• Passover: A mother trying to set fire to a piece of bread as part of a centuries-old Jewish ritual accidentally burned her 3-year-old son.

• Lag Ba’omer: Up to 10 people were injured with varying degrees of burns after someone threw a quantity of gasoline into a bonfire which went out of control.

• Sukkot: A seven-month-old boy sleeping in a crib was killed when a fire ripped through the top floor of his family’s home. Investigators believe the blaze was sparked by a faulty timer that was rigged to an air conditioner in the baby’s third-floor room.

• Shabbat: A 70-year old woman was burned on a Friday night incident involving Shabbat candles. The victim sustained burns to over 75 percent of her body.

• Chanukah: Two homes were completely destroyed over the holiday. In one case, the menorah may have ignited window curtains. No lives were lost thanks in part to smoke detectors.

• Purim: Despite warnings from rabbis, a child sustained an eye injury due to the misuse of fireworks to celebrate the holiday.

These sobering examples come from the website run by Maccabee Aish which calls itself “the first organization dedicated to fire safety and prevention, offering educational programming to address the needs of the Jewish community.” Maccabee Aish has a wealth of practical information including downloadable posters geared to all the major Jewish holidays as well as brochures for teachers, parents and kids.

And then there is the issue of food. Dr. Suzanne Schwartz, a former Burn Fellow at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, points out that food poses another serious hazard particularly for observant families. “There is usually intense kitchen activity in preparation for Sabbath and holiday meals—an average of 18 meals during the three week High Holiday season alone. Keeping that food warm during Sabbath and holidays involves any combination of devices, including an urn and crock pot—each with an electrical cord, a blech which is a piece of tin that conceals a stove top flame underneath, an oven fire, or a warming tray.”

Here’s a sampling of fire safety advice as we move through the Jewish calendar:

• Passover: While searching for chametz, keep the candle away from all flammable objects, especially curtains, sofas and tablecloths.

• Sukkot: Be careful about bringing hot food and beverages into and out of the Sukkah. It is easy to trip and be scalded.

• Chanukah: When making latkes, remember to turn frying pan handles away from the edge of the stove, so that they do not get knocked over and cause the oil to be spilled.

• Purim: Do not carry caps, loaded cap guns or fireworks in your pocket. They may ignite and cause serious burn injuries.

• Shabbat: When lighting and blessing candles, women need to insure that they do not accidentally set their sleeves on fire when they put their hands over the flames.

Flames are not just lit to celebrate Jewish festivals. Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner was asked whether a 24-hour yahrzeit candle could—and should - be blown out when leaving the house and relit upon returning. “[It] is encouraging to know that there are Jews who take tradition seriously and at the same time are also concerned about common sense and safety,” Rabbi Lerner wrote. “My own advice... is that if the yahrzeit light is enclosed in a fireproof container, place it also on a metal tray or a deep basin filled with water... I cannot ever recall a yahrzeit light in a glass causing a fire, but by taking precautions to place it on a surface that will not burn, it would be doubly safe.”

Some fire departments have begun to realize how closely Jewish traditions are tied to fire. The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) has published its own safety information sheets in both English and Yiddish geared toward the Jewish community.

And it’s a bit stomach churning but I recommend downloading a related 26-page FDNY presentation on fire safety for Passover that illustrates that the devastation that was caused to several kitchens due to out-of-control fires.

One of the points emphasized in the presentation is that when cooking, you should “have a pot lid and container of baking soda handy to smother a pan fire. Do not use water.” I never really understood how water could spread a fire until I saw the video of someone at a chametz burning ceremony who used water to douse a fire that was getting out-of-control. Luckily nobody was injured.

Soon after moving into the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, Chaya Malka Abramson woke up one night to find her apartment engulfed in flames.

While saving her two young children and her grandmother, Abramson sustained second and third degree burns to 85 per cent of her body. She beat the odds and survived, and went on to found the Chaya Malka Burn Foundation, which provides emotional and financial support to burn victims throughout Israel. 

The website has valuable practical advice. As well, there are stories about people who have sustained severe burns. 


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