Because Orthodox Jewish observance of Torah precludes the turning on and off of electrical lights and appliances, the family left a hotplate on all night which may have sparked the blaze. On Friday night in New York City, seven children — all from one family — perished in a fire believed started by that device. ABC News reports:
Fire investigators believe a hot plate left on a kitchen counter ignited the flames that raced up the stairs, trapping the children in their second-floor rear bedrooms, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.
Many religious Jews do not use electricity on the Sabbath, along with refraining from work and observing other prohibitions meant to keep the day holy. As a result, some families may leave them on so they are usable without violating any religious laws or traditions.
Just last week, the situation comedy Fresh Off The Boat introduced some new characters, part of an Orthodox family where the toilet is used in darkness because switching lights on is forbidden and in another scene the guests are asked to do things in the kitchen which the family cannot do themselves.
Many Evangelicals (who comprise the majority of this blog’s readers) don’t realize that in Judiasm, there are denominations, just as there are in Christianity. From that most authoritative source, Wikipedia, we learn the following:
- Orthodox Judaism holds that both the Written and Oral Torah were divinely revealed to Moses, and that the laws within it are binding and unchanging.
- Conservative Judaism holds that the Oral Law is divine and normative, but holds that both the Written and Oral Law may be interpreted by the rabbis to reflect modern sensibilities and suit modern conditions.
- Reform Judaism rejects most of the ritual and ceremonial laws of the Torah while observing moral laws, and emphasizes the ethical call of the Prophets.
Denominationalism in Judiasm is not a recent development. We know that Jesus entered into a situation where some Jews followed the teachings of Hillel and others followed Shammai. Jesus brought new teachings which did not build on what was previously taught but came from his own authority: “You have heard it said… but I say to you…” (And the belief system which followed from his teachings and resurrection, thought not initially termed Christianity, was represented very quickly by different strands, or sects.)
However, his general ethic seemed to be founded on the idea of opting for that which preserves life. He brings up the story of David and his men eating the consecrated bread from the temple as an example of practicality. And then,
NASB-Luke 14:5 And He said to them, “ Which one of you will have a son or an ox fall into a well, and will not immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?”
By Orthodox standards, Jesus’ teachings would be seen as quite liberal, if not heretical or even blasphemous (because of what they would perceive as his, at the very least casual attitude toward the law, or at worst, contempt for it). But what would he say in today’s world, where Orthodox observance meets with the technology afforded by electric lights and ovens and (for New York apartment dwellers) pushing elevator floor buttons.
Back to the news story… Did some in the dominantly Jewish neighborhood hesitate to call 911 because of a prohibition against using a telephone? The fire did spread very quickly, so we certainly don’t want to attach blame here. But another Wikipedia page offers some insight:
Like other electrical appliances, telephones are bound by similar restrictions on Shabbat. Operating a telephone may involve separate prohibitions at each stage of the operation. Thus, removing a telephone from the receiver to produce a dial tone closes a circuit and makes a noise. Dialing closes more circuits and creates more noises. Speaking on the phone increases an existing current, but Rabbi Shlomo Auerbach and many other authorities permit this. Hanging up the phone opens a circuit, which is a Biblical prohibition of “destroying” according to the Chazon Ish but a Rabbinic prohibition according to others.
Dialing on many phones, including cell phones, also causes the numbers to be written on a display screen, thus violating the prohibition of writing (even though the writing is not permanent). If a phone call must be made on Shabbat, other factors being equal, it is preferable to use a phone without a display screen.
and then adds,
In some cases, the telephone may be a lifeline in the event of an emergency, in which case the laws of Shabbat are of course suspended: a life-saving phone call may be made.
What might the Rabbi of Nazareth say about a hotplate which introduces the risk of loss of life? Would the principle of life over law extend to the risk imposed by the hotplate left burning through the night?
It certainly highlights the complexities of a legalistic code about which those outside the faith know very little.
image: ABC News (click link in story)