Deadly House Fires in Israel No More Common on Sabbath, Nonprofit Says

Faulty electrics and appliances can cause fires, not just Sabbath hot plates, one of which likely ignited the Brooklyn blaze that killed seven last weekend.

Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber
The home of the Sassoon family, where a fire killed 7, March 22, 2015.
The home of the Sassoon family, where a fire killed 7, March 22, 2015.Credit: AFP
Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber

A fire that was likely sparked by a malfunctioning Sabbath hot plate claimed the lives of seven children from a single Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn on Saturday. Authorities believe that a pot left on the plate overheated, sparking the blaze that tore through the Sassoons' home and trapped the children, aged 5 to 16, in their bedrooms. Their mother and 15-year-old sister were the only survivors, as the father was not home at the time; the two managed to escape through the window.

Though many blame this tragedy on the use of a hot plate on the Sabbath, this could have happened on any day, and with any electrical device, insists Orly Lavid-Barzel of the Israeli nonprofit Beterem – Safe Kids Israel.

“Look, this was a short circuit – this could have happened with any electric implement It’s not just because they are an ultra-Orthodox family,” she says, adding, “It’s not really about the Sabbath hot plate.”

While the weekend blaze was at least the fourth deadly fire in Brooklyn in 15 years as a result of Sabbath and holiday observance, according to The Forward, in Israel – where one-third of Jews observe the Sabbath “meticulously” or “to a great extent,” according to a 2012 poll – there are other major causes of fires than hot plates.

Households that observe the Sabbath uphold the prohibition on lighting a flame and turning on electrical appliances by cooking on hot plates and using specially made hot-water urns. Risks of fire or burns are also posed by Sabbath candles and by other appliances that are turned on for the duration of the Day of Rest.

Citing figures from Israel’s Fire and Rescue Services, Lavid-Barzel, the central district director of Beterem, explains that on any given day, the most common cause of household fires in Israel is electrical malfunctions due to faulty wiring or appliances. In May 2012, she recalls, six members of the Shaer family in Rehovot were killed in a blaze sparked by an overheated laptop left on a mattress.

Incidents such as these, which are not common in general, are not more common on the Sabbath, or as a result of hot plates, she stresses.

Some 41 children died in fires in Israel between 2008 and February 2015, according to Beterem, 37 of which were household fires. Of those involving children who were Jewish, only one incident, in 2011, took place on a Saturday, when a 5-year-old child played with candles and matches in his home.

One, rare holiday-related death in a fire took place in December last year, when a Hanukkah menorah sparked a blaze that killed a 7-year-old in Beit Shemesh, outside Jerusalem.

According to an examination of the appliances involved in those blazes, in 20 out of 41 deaths a short circuit or other unknown cause was involved; 5 were caused by a laptop; seven, by an air conditioner; one, a television; and three involved heaters. The other appliances involved in the deaths were Hanukkah candles, flammable liquid, matches, cooking gas or a wooden structure - less common in Israeli houses than American ones - but not Sabbath hot plates.

Children as burn victims

A high proportion of burn victims in Israel are children, with around half of them under 4 years of age, according to Dr. Josef Haik, head of the National Burns Unit at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer. This is higher than the proportion in the United States where, according to the American Burn Association, children under 5 made up some 20 percent of burn victims between 2003 and 2012.

Annually, local hospitals treat some 500 children suffering from burns, Haik says, estimating that up to five times that number are treated each year for more minor burns but are not hospitalized. Many of these victims come from religious Jewish and Arab families; health professionals note that such families tend to be poorer and have more children, a fact that contributes to the higher number of home accidents.

In observant Jewish households, common Sabbath accidents in this realm include scalding from hot water, whether from showers, baths or hot-water urns, and burns from contact with Sabbath candles and hot plates, or with spills from the pots cooking on them.

Hot water is the most common cause of burns in the country, Haik explains, with fires in general in second place. He adds that the number of incidents of children burning themselves on Sabbath hot plates is not “sky high.”

Improved standards for hot-water urns, adopted in 2005, have reduced the rate of burning accidents on the holy day.

“Years ago there were hot-water urns on three legs; they were unsteady, kids would fall against them and water would spill on them and they would suffer burns,” says Lavid-Barzel. “Today it just doesn’t happen. The lids are better fitted, the electric cables are shorter, and people don’t put them on the floor as much.”

Ahead of Passover, local burn units traditionally see increasing amounts of what Haik refers to as “Passover burns.” These are chemical injuries caused by the cleaning materials many families use to rid their houses completely of any unleavened substances ahead of the holiday. These cases are more common among ultra-Orthodox Jews, something Haik attributes to the fact that they have larger families, and tend come from the lower socioeconomic stratum.

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