Tragedy caused by religion

Seven children died in a fire that was caused by a hotplate that had been kept on all night and set their apartment on fire. The hotplate was not left on due to oversight but was done deliberately to avoid breaking Jewish law that prohibits working on a Sabbath, and turning a hotplate on is apparently considered ‘work’.

The hot plate was left on for the Sabbath, which lasts from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Many religious Jews use one to keep food warm, obeying the traditional prohibition on use of fire on the holy day as well as work in all forms, including turning on appliances.

The Sassoons’ hot plate apparently malfunctioned, setting off flames that tore up the stairs, trapping the children in their second-floor bedrooms as they slept, investigators said.

I have written before about these absurd workarounds that very observant Jews use to circumvent their equally absurd restrictions, such as the Certified Sabbath Mode stoves and kosher telephones (scroll down) and Shabbat elevators, not to mention even the simple act of writing one’s name or using tape recorders.

These rules are mostly exercises in ridiculous wasting of time and energy. They seem to mostly serve to provide employment to the rabbis whose job it is to come up with the prohibitions and the ways to get around them. But as we see in this case, these absurd practices can on occasion lead to tragic results. The logical response to this tragedy would be to say that turning on a hot plate cannot possibly constitute an evil act in any rational world. But religious people do not think like that. Watch for rabbis and manufacturers to come up with a hot plate version of the certified Sabbath stove, a complicated solution to a non-problem.


  1. says

    These rules are mostly exercises in ridiculous wasting of time and energy

    They apparently believe in a god that is either very very stupid, or a patent attorney. Or a very very stupid patent attorney.

    I wonder if it would have been “work” to put the fire out and save the kids?

  2. tecolata says

    Strictly speaking, Marcus, Jewish law expressly states that a religious law must be suspended when a human life is in the balance. A doctor walking to shul on Shabbat would come to the aid of an accident victim, although she/he would not see routine patients. And the manufacturer may also bear responsibility if the hot plate was defective.


    Such a waste.

  3. August Eightysix says

    C’mon, that does not logically follow. It would be incorrect (and quite insensitive) to blame these tragic deaths on religion. If It had been a family of atheists needing to use a hot plate overnight for whatever reason, you wouldn’t blame atheism for that. Now if the family of Orthodox Jews refused to turn off the malfunctioning hotplate as it was going aflame because of the sabbath and refused to use a fire extinguisher to put out the flames because that would be working on the sabbath -- then blame their religion. That’s not the case, so take this ridiculous post off -- it’s an embarrassment to atheists. I expect this type of inadequate thinking from religious nuts but not from theoretical physics directors.

  4. Mano Singham says

    August @#4,

    I’m sorry but your logic is flawed. The fact that the hotplate was left on was not some coincidental fact but a direct consequence of them following religious laws. The people were following a requirement of their religion and this led to the accident. If being an atheist required one to indulge in such a dangerous practice as leaving a hotplate on overnight and a similar tragedy resulted, then it would be perfectly valid to assign atheism blame.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    August Eightysix @ # 4: If It had been a family of atheists needing to use a hot plate overnight for whatever reason, you wouldn’t blame atheism for that.

    No, we would blame the “whatever” reason. In this case, the blind and pointless tradition of whateverism can be clearly identified.

    Can you offer us some “adequate thinking” on this horrible and senseless event?

  6. says

    Jewish law expressly states that a religious law must be suspended when a human life is in the balance

    Wait! I’ve got it!!
    “These bullshit rules are so annoying I’m going to kill myself!”
    “Wait! No! Your life is in the balance! You don’t have to follow the rules any more!”
    Whenever the rule interferes, plan to kill yourself over it. Eventually all the rules are mooted.

    That’s no stupider than some of the other backflips people do to comply with the letter of jewish law while dodging its spirit. So, there, I fixed it. (dusts off his hands) Now, you can live like samurai: prepared for death at any moment, and unafraid.

  7. Jockaira says

    I wonder if it qualifies as work to lift food on and off the “always on” hotplate. Then there is lifting the food to your mouth, surely work in any common sense.

    Even the act of breathing is the work of moving volumes of air into and out of the body. I submit that the very act of existence is work.

    So you should die on the shabbat to stay kosher! There is no substitute for being pure and godly.

  8. Glenn says

    Jesus said you could work on the sabbath if your ass is in a jam.

    “But the Lord answered him, and said, Ye hypocrites, doth not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering?” —Luke 13:15

  9. says

    While I agree that the various workarounds employed to avoid (what seems to be a weirdly arbitrary definition of) “work” on the sabbath are ridiculous this particular case seems like its at least as much the fault of a defective appliance. I regularly cook with a crock pot that I leave on for well over 12 hours. Not because it actually takes that long to make good chili, but because sometimes I want it to be ready at a certain time and so I cook it slower and longer so I can do the initial prep when I have time. If my crock pot malfunctions and I burn to death I imagine you would all blame the defective crock pot and not my scheduling, right?

  10. says

    I know some people don’t trust leaving a crock pot (or any cooking appliance) on unattended. But many of these devices are designed and marketed for specifically that kind of use. I can’t seem to find any details about what model of hotplate caused this fire but there are certainly hotplates out there that are designed for extended use.

  11. anat says

    Anyone not familiar with the working of Halakha commenting on the ‘spirit of the law’ should be careful not speak out of ignorance. Judaism does not deal with the ‘spirit of the law’. The Orthodox Jewish view is (more or less) that the ‘spirit of the law’ is that one adheres to the law as determined by one’s accepted halakhic authority. This makes the spirit vs letter of the law distinction pretty much moot.

    The Orthodox perception of their god is a law-giver who expects their law to be interpreted by a set of accepted methods, and who appreciates ingenuity in the application of such methods.

    A long time ago there were Jews who followed Torah literally and did not accept rabbinical authority to interpret the laws of Torah -- whether for leniency (as with Shabbat laws) or for increased stringency (as with kashrut). These Jews split off and formed the Karaite community. Karaite Judaism exists to this day, but they are a minor group.

  12. anat says

    To Jockaira (@11):

    Halakha defines 39 categories of work that are forbidden on Shabbat (see Activities prohibited on Shabbat). Actions are considered permissible or forbidden based on whether they are considered to fall in one of the 39 or not. For instance, back in 1996 I recall some rabbi forbade walking barefoot on grass on Shabbat, because a blade of grass might get caught between one’s toes resulting in tearing or uprooting of a plant.

  13. lorn says

    IMO there is nothing wrong with minimizing work done on one day of the week. A day of rest could certainly be part of a good life. Unfortunately, as with so many other things, religion is particularly prone to taking the reasonable and practicable and making a fetish of taking it too far.

  14. says

    Contrary to what the sock puppet poster said (#4), this definitely was caused by religion.

    This has to be one of the stupidest causes of death I’ve heard of in a while. If they don’t want to “work” as they call it, they should ask the Japanese how to make osechi. Nobody ever died from that.

    I’ve heard of people dying by horrible accidents due to inexperience and lack of knowledge: people unintentionally killing themselves with carbon monoxide. This story was from India, but I’ve read of a similar story from Thailand and elsewhere.

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