September 22, 2019

Exploding Knives, and Other Hazards of Kashering

Let me just start by admitting that I probably didn’t really need to put the knife directly on my burner. But it was the first time in a very long time I was kashering anything, and I had conflicting guidance from my rabbi and my mother, and I thought I needed to drop a hot metal object into my hot water urn to make it kosher for Pesach (I was totally wrong. Do not try it at home.).

How was I to know the knife would explode into my face, leaving me traumatized — though only slightly injured?

But my ignorance is exactly the point: In preparation for Passover, usually smart homemakers end up doing really dumb things with superhot materials, all in the name of removing any trace of chametz (leavened grain products). And, often, people get hurt.

“Here you have this extra cooking and extra work, while the kids are running all over the house, and the combination, naturally and unfortunately, brings in a high volume of calls,” said Tzvika Brenner, chairman of Hatzolah, an all-volunteer first-responder system operating in three Orthodox neighborhoods in Los Angeles that has been responding to emergencies since 2001.

On any normal day, Hatzolah usually gets about five calls; before Passover, that number jumps to between 10 and 15. Hatzolah has 86 trained EMTs who are able to respond within minutes, even seconds, to an accident in Pico-Robertson, Valley Village or the Fairfax/Hancock Park area and then transfer care to the paramedics once they arrive.

Most Passover calls involve burns, either from kashering or cooking accidents.

Kashering involves subjecting pots, dishes or cooking appliances to extreme treatments to eliminate even invisible traces of offending food. Those treatments usually involve heated metal or rocks, boiling water, superheated ovens and, in some cases, blowtorches.

“It’s not something we do every day, so accidents happen,” Brenner said.

And, as in my case, half the things we do don’t really need to be done, according to Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, executive director of Emek Hebrew Academy Teichman Family Torah Center in Sherman Oaks and founder of the Kosher Information Bureau and He said when Passover approaches, he receives twice the usual daily 100 e-mails with questions regarding kosher products and kashering a kitchen.

“The reason I went into this in 1976 was that people were going so overboard,” he said. “And it didn’t make them any more observant of halachah.”

Many women don’t trust rabbis when it comes to kashering a kitchen for Passover — they want to do it like their mothers did it or better than their neighbors do it.

Eidlitz has seen men and women strain their backs moving refrigerators to clean up any crumbs, which, he said, is completely unnecessary. Only accessible chametz needs to be removed. People blowtorch ovens, damaging the thermostat and killing the gasket that lines the door, when all they really need to do is turn the temperature up as high as it goes for about an hour.

While he lauds the impulse to be thorough about kashering, he laments that so many women can barely stay awake at seders because they’ve spent the week repapering every shelf, lining their refrigerator with heavy duty foil (thereby limiting air circulation and breaking the compressor) or covering the counters. All unnecessary, he says. If it’s clean and it’s cold it does not need to be kashered or covered. Only appliances or utensils that come into contact with heat need any special treatment.

In fact, it was from Eidlitz that I learned I hadn’t needed to kasher my hot water urn at all. I could have just cleaned the outside, and that’s it.

I’m not sure how I got it into my head that I need to drop a hot object into my urn. Heating a rock or a piece of metal and dropping it into boiling water is a standard method for kashering pots, because it causes the water to overflow, thus insuring that every part of the pot has been covered in boiling water.

I didn’t have a rock, so I decided to use a solid metal, blunt knife from my everyday stainless steel cutlery. I put the knife on the burner, and after a minute or so, I leaned over to turn the flame off.

Which is exactly when the knife exploded.

Turns out the core of the knife handle was made of ceramic or some other kind of porous composite rock. When I put the knife on the burner, the metal and the rock heated up at different rates, and the built-up energy resulted in the rock exploding out of the metal casing.

The explosion threw me backward and muffled my hearing.

Shards of something hit me straight on, and I shrieked, imagining myself forever blinded and scarred by what I thought was hot metal shrapnel all over my face, in my eyes, in my mouth.

I hobbled to the bathroom and washed off what I soon realized was a chalky substance. I had pocks all over my neck and some on my face, but I could still see — my eyes didn’t even hurt — and there was no blood or open wounds. I ended up with small burn blisters on my neck, eyelids, face and arms that were gone within a few weeks.

Brenner said L.A.’s Hatzolah has never been called for any exploding knife incidents, but there are plenty of other ways people have managed to hurt themselves.

To kasher granite or marble countertops, you pour a small amount of boiling water onto the counter. That can get kind of tricky, especially if you’re trying to keep the water from dripping onto wood cabinets or onto the floor. People often pour much more water than needed, Eidlitz said, and sometimes the water spills into their shoes, which can cause severe burns.

Brenner has had cases of people playing with the fire as they kashered. Or a man might grab a utensil he thinks needs to be dipped in boiling water, only to find out that his wife just removed it from the steaming cauldron.

Most often, Brenner, himself a responder, sees cooking accidents.

“You’re in a rush to take something off the stove or out of the oven, and many times you put it down the first place you find, not realizing it’s too close, in the reach of young children,” Brenner said.

He warns of leaving cords for hot water urns loose, vulnerable to being pulled down.

Eidlitz thinks many of the accidents, and the general exhaustion of Pesach, would be mitigated if people asked more questions about what they really need to do.

But he knows he’s fighting an uphill battle. And he admits the zealotry of Passover may have advantages.

“There is a good reason why statistically only between 11 and 18 percent of people buy all kosher food year round, but over 70 percent do for Pesach,” Eidlitz said. “And that’s because as little girls, women today saw their mothers and bubbes working their kishkes [guts] off to make sure that everything is so meticulous. And something that important gets ingrained in a person.”