What Is the Torah Approach to Fire Safety?
Dear Jew in the City-
Since I became religious, I’ve been scared about the seemingly loose attitude about fire safety in the frum world (leaving Shabbos and Chanukah candles burning, hot plates on for 3-day Yom Tov stretches). What’s the right approach here?
Thanks for your question. I’m with you on this one! I always take the extra step when it comes to fire safety and there are things I don’t like doing, such as going out for a Friday night meal if there are candles burning or leaving the stovetop burners on (I prefer a crockpot). Situations should be triaged into the “necessary,” the “optional” and the “never.” Lighting Shabbos candles or Chanukah candles? That’s necessary, so one must take proper precautions. Leaving the burners or oven on for a 24-hour period? That’s optional. You can do it if you’re comfortable with it but you can also work around that if it’s outside your comfort zone. Leaving a hotplate on for an extended period of time? That’s a safety hazard and should never be done.
When doing things that are necessary, or choosing to do things that are optional, one must familiarize himself with basic fire-safety protocols, both in general and as they pertain to Jewish ritual observance in particular. For example:
- Never place candles near anything flammable, such as curtains;
- Keep Shabbos, yom tov, Chanukah, and yahrzeit candles out of the reach of small children;
- When lighting candles, women must be careful of their sleeves and hair;
- Families must be aware of the high heat generated by candles (especially by the large numbers of Chanukah candles on the later days);
- Never leave burning candles unattended;
- Develop a fire escape plan;
- Make sure you have smoke and carbon monoxide alarms and that they work;
- Use a pot lid and baking soda to smother a pan fire, not water;
- Et cetera.
Fire safety neither starts nor ends with Jewish ritual observance; there are certain hazards that every household potentially faces and we all must take due diligence For example, when temperatures drop, many people employ space heaters. Proper safety protocols must be followed when using these devices. This includes making sure they have sufficient clearance around them; keeping them away from lint, dust and water; plugging them directly into an outlet rather than using an extension cord; not leaving them running unattended; and more. (It is also highly advisable that one purchase a unit that will turn off automatically if tipped over.)
House fires are largely preventable so each of us should review both basic fire-safety rules and those of particular relevance to Jewish families. Two such resources to facilitate this are this page of fire-safety tips from the OU and this New York City fire-safety pamphlet focusing on Jewish observance.
Lighting Shabbos candles and Chanukah candles are both rabbinically-instituted mitzvos. (Yes, the Sages could institute actual mitzvos, for reasons that are beyond our scope.) Similarly, the way we enjoy hot food on Shabbos is meant to enhance our observance of Shabbos (a positive mitzvah) without actively cooking on Shabbos (a negative mitzvah). In fact, one who refuses to eat hot food on Shabbos is even suspected of heresy (Rema OC 257:8)! There are similarly compelling reasons for lighting havdalah candles, yahrtzeit candles and more, so these are not practices we look to avoid. But there is an equally compelling mitzvah to protect our lives and our healths (Deuteronomy 4:15). Accordingly, we must take all reasonable precautions – and no unnecessary risks – when it comes to fire safety
So never, ever leave a regular hot plate on for 25 hours, let alone three days – they’re simply not designed for that! There are special Shabbos food warmers that can be purchased for this purpose.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
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