By Lisa Sanders, Writer and documentary maker
I crept blearily downstairs in the wee hours of Shabbat morning, my mind still on my baby son.
We were in that newborn phase, our body clocks in sync with his two-to-three hour sleep-feed-change routine.
I took extra care to avoid the creaking third stair: since I’d only just fed him and put him back in his cot, I was desperate to maximise my sleep hours before the next cry-feed-change cycle began again. But my husband had awoken briefly and mumbled something about a funny smell from the kitchen, so there I was, tiptoeing down to investigate. I opened the kitchen door, and a plume of acrid black smoke greeted me. Probably I shouted.
I remember charging forward like a woman possessed, and realising that orangey flames were shooting from beneath the Shabbat hotplate, which we’d plugged in and left on the worktop before Shabbat came in, as we did every week.
Within a few adrenaline-filled seconds, I’d successfully wrenched the plug from the socket, doused the flames with wet tea towels and stood, coughing and shaking, surveying the smouldering, blackened patch of Formica that was once the kitchen counter.
Notably, my family had slept right through it, until I ran back up and shook my husband awake to tell him what had happened. In the morning, the kitchen looked a wreck. And in the days that followed, we chastised ourselves.
How foolish we’d been, we realised, to place our Israeli hotplate, designed for heat-resistant marble, on a flimsy kitchen surface of a rented Hendon house. Since we’d just arrived back in the UK after years of living in Israel, with two small children and a newborn in tow, not to mention all our jumbled belongings, we hadn’t got round to purchasing timers, or smoke detectors for that matter. Following our near-miss, I went out to Brent Cross and purchased a state-of-the- art ‘hostess tray’.
We installed timers so that no light or appliance would be “on” for the duration of Shabbat. We placed smoke detectors upstairs and down. Happily (apart from a scary but unrelated visit to A&E with our four-year-old), the rest of our Hendon Shabbats passed without drama. But the incident struck me with sickening clarity when I read about the tragedy of the Sassoon family in Brooklyn, New York.
Avigayil Sassoon was at home with her eight children while her husband was away at a study conference. They, too, were recent arrivals, back in the US after many years in Israel. Shortly after midnight, on a bitterly cold Friday night in the quiet Orthodox neighbourhood, a fire ripped through the house.
According to the New York Fire Department, it was caused by a faulty Shabbat hotplate.
Other reports say a dish placed on the hotplate overheated and sparked the fire.
As the fire tore through the ground floor, Avigayil and her eldest daughter, Tziporah, were forced to jump from an upstairs window.
The other seven children were trapped in the back part of the house.
Neighbours heard them screaming for help. More than 100 firefighters rushed to the scene, but none of the seven siblings, aged five to 15, could be saved. Mother and daughter remain in hospital in critical condition.
This appalling tragedy has made not just me but Shabbat-observant Jews all over the world think carefully about the gadgets we use to make Shabbat comfortable and convenient in our modern lives.
Even after our Hendon incident, I have been guilty over the years of patching up frayed electrical cables on our various hotplates (yes, even the posh John Lewis ‘hostess tray’ eventually fell victim to wear and tear), kettles and slow cookers with duct tape and hoping for the best.
Not any more.
No Shabbat convenience is worth the risk.
It would be far-fetched to say, as some have tried, that keeping Shabbat is dangerous. In Israel, where one-third of Jews observe it “meticulously” according to a 2012 survey, there is no data to suggest hotplates cause more fires than any other appliance.
Orly Lavid-Barzel, of the Israeli organisation Beterem – Safe Kids Israel, says any appliance can short-circuit and become deadly.
As I prepare for Pesach, I shall take a moment to stop and think: “Have I done all I can to make this holiday safe and enjoyable for all my family and guests?” And I’m grateful to my handsome, boisterous 11-year-old for being the infant who woke me and saved us all from catastrophe.