Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Monday, March 23, 2015

Antiquated, Awkward, Deadly

"They were so pure. My wife, she came out fighting."
"My children were unbelievable. They were the best."
"You have to love them as parents. You have to love them as teachers."
Gabi Sassoon, funeral eulogy, Brooklyn, New York
The father of the seven children from the Sassoon family who were killed in a fire in Brooklyn remembered them at a funeral service in Israel. March 23, 2015. Photo by Oded Balilty/Associated Press.
It is the ultra-Orthodox Jewish tradition that on the Sabbath none of the faithful may exert themselves in any manner that can be construed as labour, for Jewish law forbids working in any form on the day of rest. 'Working' is construed as using any modern convenience or equipment of any kind, even switching on a light, or turning the knob on a stove, or turning the heat up for a furnace. Driving a vehicle is strictly prohibited, and religious Jews walk to synagogue.

In obedience to the strictures in the use of any device whatsoever, neither television nor computers can be used; in short just about everything is proscribed. Some Orthodox Jews resort to paying a fee to non-Jews to do those little things that everyone takes for granted, like flicking a light switch, like turning on an oven to bake a meal for a family. It certainly seems as though such proscriptions are absurd to anyone looking on, but the pious observe these customs.

They are hugely inconvenient, but are hewed to nonetheless as a symbol of faith. Rabbinical scholars find small measures that are permitted to bypass some of the obstacles to daily living during the Sabbath but the general proscription does remain. And the tragedy that unfolded this past Sunday in the home of an ultra-religious Jewish family owes its accidental occurrence to that very restriction. It would appear that some such families leave hot plates on all the time so they may be used to warm food without actually turning them off and on.

And the devastating fire that occurred to consume seven children in the Sassoon family on Saturday resulted from a malfunctioning device left on a kitchen counter. So, three girls, age 16, 11 and 6 and their brothers aged 12, 10, 8 and 5, died in that consuming furnace that their home because, trapping them in their second-floor bedrooms. Their mother and one 14-year-old girl managed to escape the conflagration, but not without serious injury. Their father was not at home at the time.

A neighbour saw flames in the Sassoon house and called 911. It took firefighters less than four minutes to arrive, to be met by the distraught, badly burned mother of the children, begging for help, but it was too late to save any of her seven children. She and her daughter were rushed to hospital. The children's father arrived home to find his family destroyed. The fire had spread through the kitchen to the dining room, to a hallway, the stairway leading to the second floor, and the bedrooms.

A funeral service took place on Sunday, thousands of people turned out to pay their respects, while mourners were struck with grief at the sight of the seven small coffins which had been flown to Israel, where the family had lived in Jerusalem before moving to the United States a year and a half earlier. The prayers were conducted in Hebrew. And the mourning was intense.

The bodies of the children, which had been flown to Israel from New York City, were laid out on stretchers inside the small Sephardic funeral hall. Credit Oded Balilty/Associated Press
As the entire city of New York mourned, its  Fire Department handed out pamphlets titled "Fire Safety for Jewish Observances" as well as smoke alarms and batteries. An online version of the Fire Department pamphlet about dangers during the Sabbath and Jewish holidays appears with a warning: "Stay in the kitchen - don't leave cooking food unattended."

A common-sense caution that one might imagine anyone would be aware of, but timely enough as a reminder to people that such tragedies can result and it is prudent at all times to be aware of such potential danger; too late for the anguished parents who have lost seven children, but perhaps it may help others to avoid a similar dreadful occurrence.

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