Ah, Hanukkah, how welcome it is! As we head toward the shortest day of the year, here is the Festival of Light to brighten the darkness with candles and oil and to heat the body from the inside out with deep-fried treats, from latkes to loukomades, from zelebis to sufganiot. And, let’s not forget the sparkle of foil-wrapped gelt, the dreidels and coins, the crinckle of wrapping paper and the kisses exchanged with holiday visitors to add to the atmosphere and warm the heart.
Unfortunately, all of these celebratory gifts and events come with dangers that can turn a highly anticipated occasion into heartbreak. First, the most obvious: the Hanukkiah, the iconic symbol of the holiday and, in many ways, the most hazardous, regardless of whether the fuel is candlewax or oil. “Open flames are inherently dangerous,” according to Thomas Winship, Captain of FDNY Ladder Company Three. Although, unlike another December holiday, Hanukkah is not marked by a large evergreen tree dropping needles in the center of the living room, Shabbos table centerpieces composed of drying backyard greenery are not any safer if they are allowed to get too close to a flame. “Stick with fresh cut flowers and greenery,” he said.
The Hanukkiah should be placed on a sturdy surface of non-combustible material, such as glass, metal or stone, in a low-traffic area where nothing can fall on it or knock it over and well away from such combustible material as drapes or books. “Placing it into an old fish tank set on a non-combustible surface is an excellent idea,” he pointed out. Small children should not be permitted to broach a three-foot safety zone around the Hanukkiah, and no one should move around with a lit match, lighter or candle. For that matter, make sure all spare candles, oil bottles, matches and lighters are put away as soon as they are no longer needed.
As for the composition of the Hanukkiah itself, although metals can burn, there is no realistic possibility that candles or oil will reach the temperature to ignite them. That is not the case for a menorah made as part of an arts and crafts project at school or Hebrew school—display it by all means, but treat it as though it were made of paper, which, in fact, it might well be. If you are a DIYer, you may have come across instructions for making candleholders out of wood, many of which are temptingly attractive. They are said to be safe, especially if candle cups are used, because most candlewicks do not reach to the bottom of the candle and because candles do not become hot enough to ignite the wood. However, if the piece is coated with polyurethane, depending on the composition of the plastic, it may be much more flammable than the original wood, and wax has been known to overflow candle cups onto the surrounding candle holder. Many Hanukkah candles, moreover, do in fact have wicks that continue all the way through. “Metal is definitely the safest,” said Capt. Winship.
Oil and candlewax are both present dangers, each in its own way. Oil can spill and spread much farther and faster than the flame from a knocked over candle. However, as explained by Dr. Emanuel Lazar of Holmdel, oil is less likely to be knocked over in the first place. “The small candles they sell in the supermarket are very unstable,” he said, “and the long ones used for Shabbos have a very high center of gravity and often need to be surrounded with foil to keep them steady. They are much more likely to cause burns.” If you are using candles, make sure they fit snugly in the candle cups.
Whatever fuel you use and whatever the material of which your Hanukkiah is made, it is universally accepted that the most dangerous thing you can do is to leave it alone, according to Capt. Winship. Do not leave it unattended, especially when children and pets are in the house, and never leave the house while oil or candles are burning. “Don’t go upstairs, don’t go to sleep. Watch your candles,” emphasized Dr. Lazar.
Of course, candle and oil flames are not the only potential sources of fires or burns. All those deep fried delicacies come with their own hazards. “You definitely have to be prepared for an oil fire,” said Capt. Winship. As with the Hanukkiah, the stove or deep fryer should be surrounded by a three-foot safety zone. Oil splatters and residues can cause burns and spread flames, so before even beginning to cook, you should make sure that your range is uncluttered and that both the range and the vent and filter are clean and grease free. Check your smoke detectors, fire alarms and appropriately rated fire extinguisher to make sure they are in working order and up to date.
When cooking, keep handles of pots turned toward the back of the stove, unless doing so would require you to reach over a burner or pot on the fire; in that case, keep handles turned toward the side away from a counter that is actively being used. To flip latkes, use a slotted spatula, and turn them away from you, toward the back of the stove. Keep an eye on the temperature of the oil you are using, either in a fryer with a thermostat or with a deep-fry thermometer. Once food is cooked and removed from the oil, make sure excess oil is not pooling in a plate or spilling out onto a surface by blotting it up with a paper towel. If you then want to keep it warm, you can place it in a pan without any paper towels in an oven no hotter than 200 degrees. Never leave cooking oil unattended, for even a moment.
If, despite your precautions, the contents of a pot should catch fire, turn off the flames immediately and carefully slide a close-fitting cover onto the pot. Never slam down the lid, and never, never pour water on an oil fire—the burning oil will simply float on top and reach other areas to ignite as fast as the water can flow. In a pinch, baking soda—not baking powder!—can be used to put out an oil fire, but a working fire extinguisher is much better.
Keeping children and pets away from fire requires vigilance, but the difficulty pales beside the task of keeping them away from toys and games. Yes, our children are all above average if not, indeed, geniuses, but, when it comes to toys and gifts, the appropriate age ranges on the packages are there, not as a gauge of intellectual development, but purely for safety reasons. Stick to the instructions. Small parts in toys and other small items such as foil wrappings from candies, the candies themselves, if they are hard or particularly sticky, and tokens from games such as dreidel can all cause choking. Button batteries can cause severe internal injuries in addition. If toys will require batteries, have them installed before the gifts are opened. Once they are opened, try to keep the detritus from building up, so that hazards do not go unnoticed. If you do not know the Heimlich maneuver or CPR, find a class.
Our four-legged children—cats, dogs, hamsters, ferrets, pot-bellied pigs—are also subject to the dangers of the holiday. Although they seem much more intelligent and better at avoiding hazards than toddlers are, instinct leaves off where humans step in. They will indeed avoid wildfires, but they might not recognize that same hazard when it appears in a human-mediated form as a Hanukkiah or deep-fryer. Pets are therefore best kept in another room, preferably one that is calming. A parade of visitors can unnerve even a well adjusted animal, and if that animal is a large dog, arousal can end up in injury, both to the dog and to the object of its anxiety (and in unpleasant repercussions for the dog’s owner). Animals that will chew on objects in order to explore them—virtually all pets except goldfish—should not be allowed near wrapping paper or ribbons, which can strangle or choke them, wires, which can electrocute them, or glitter or human food, which can poison them. While literature is full of stories of pets living on table scraps, many of those table scraps, including anything containing onions, chocolate, raisins or unbaked dough, not to mention alcohol in any form, are not simply unhealthy, but toxic.
Finally, all those relatives and friends who cannot resist the shayna punim of children (and adults) whom they have not seen in some time may be bringing not just affection and holiday cheer. but viruses and infections that we have not thought about recently, as the incidence of severe illness has come down considerably from that of the height of the pandemic. Yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control, Covid-19 has joined Respiratory Syncytial Virus and Influenza as a permanent part of the respiratory virus season. “We have to remember that these are still deadly viruses,” said Professor David Dowdy of Johns Hopkins Medical School. His recommendation: “Get your vaccines.” Even if they do not offer perfect immunity, they can make the difference between an annoying sniffle and hospitalization. Other recommendations for limiting the spread of these viruses have not changed: wash your hands well, keep them away from your eyes, nose and mouth, avoid poorly ventilated, crowded locations and don’t expose anyone else if you have tested positive or have symptoms.
Have we taken all the fun out of Hanukkah? It certainly seems to require an awful lot of rules and restrictions, but most of these are rooted in simple common sense, and many are actions you are probably taking anyway. Capt. Winship stressed that reasonable care and attention can make the difference between lasting memories and irreversible tragedy, and not just for Hanukkah: “These precautions will pay off all year round.”
Sue Kleinberg is a contributing writer for JLifeNJ from Monmouth County.