I write to you with great sadness and pain as we all continue to be heartbroken and stunned by the horrific tragedy of the deaths of seven children, seven beautiful children, from our broader Orthodox community in a fire over Shabbat.
As we take in all the information and the circumstances of this horrific event I would like us all to consider these points: The most important thing at this moment is to support this devastated family in any way that we can. The mother and one of the children remain in critical condition and our prayers, empathy and any material support that we can offer, should be the order of the day. Second, every family must check their smoke detectors and Carbon Monoxide detectors to ensure that they are properly placed throughout every floor of the house and in good working condition in line with the best fire prevention guidelines available from the Fire Dept.
Keeping Food Warm on Shabbat:
a) Blech: I do not personally recommend the use of a blech covering an open flame that is left on over Shabbat. I have always been wary of the potential for fire hazards and the buildup of carbon monoxide associated with leaving an open flame on for the entire 25 hours of Shabbat. I believe that most burns and fire incidents on Shabbat during an average year(though not this most recent tragedy) occur in home where a blech was in use.
b) Hot Plates: The laws of reheating food on Shabbat are complicated and there are many opinions. Below I outline my recommendations especially in light of this tragedy and the need to take all reasonable safety precautions with the bounds of halakhic norms.
To that end my recommendations are as follows.
I. One should use a hotplate that is UL or CE (the European equivalent) approved to ensure the best of one’s ability that one is using a certified product.
II. There is a major debate among poskim as to whether one may place cold dry food (non-liquids) that was already fully cooked prior to shabbat, directly onto a hotplate that has no knobs or adjustable heating elements on shabbat itself. Many poskim feel that one may not do this as it is rabbinically forbidden because it appears like cooking-mechzei ke-mevashel. However, Rav Ovadyah Yosef zt”l and others (including according to some views, the position of Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l) ruled that as a hotplate is not used for cooking food from scratch it never fell under the enactment of the rabbis regarding mechzei kemevashel. As such this position permits one to place cold dry fully cooked food directly onto the hotplate on Shabbat morning. According to all opinions if one placed another pot or tray on top of the hotplate –kedierah al gabei kedaierah one would be permitted to take cold dry food and place on top of that second tray resting on the hotplate as this certainly is not appear as a normal act of cooking. A slightly different position was maintained by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l based on the position of the Ran. The Rav held that if one has placed fully cooked dry food on the blech or the hotplate on erev Shabbat and it remains on that heating element till dark on Friday night, one may remove it from the blech or hotplate and put it in the refrigerator and put it back on the blech or hot plate the next morning for the morning meal. The act of having the fully cooked dry food on the fire as Shabbat enters allows one to return the food directly to the fire if it is covered in the halachically appropriate manner which a belch or hotplate fulfill.
III. Though there is a debate, many poskim maintain that one may place a hotplate on a timer and let it go off in the evening and come back on in the morning a few hours before the meal and place food on the hotplate either prior to the hotplate going on or when it is one in accordance with one’s position on returning food to the fire as outlined above.
IV. Given this background, it is my recommendation, (and my own personal practice as well) that if one uses a hotplate on shabbat that it be carefully monitored and that one rely on the position that it can be used with a timer. Thus, hotplates should be regulated with a well grounded timer and go off on Friday evening after the meal and only go on again after people in the house are awake. Cold, dry fully cooked food, can be placed on the hotplate in the morning either in line with the psak of Rav Ovadyah zt”l or using the psak of Rav Soloveitchik zt”l and ensuring that the lunch food was at leats on the hotplate during bein hashemashot of Friday night before being placed in the fridge or by using a pot or tray on the hotplate in the morning before placing the food on it.
I hope these guidelines can help us all ensure a wonderful and safe Shabbat experience for us and all of our community and may we know no more sorrow or pain in our borders.
By Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, Rabbi, Congregation Netivot Shalom