What do you do when Jewish values and environmental values seemingly conflict?
Ra’anana Mayor Nahum Hofree is faced with that dilemma as his city approaches Lag Ba’omer this Saturday night.
A traditional part of the evening, and what has become its main attraction, are the massive bonfires lit to commemorate the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. However, those same bonfires are sources of air pollution and greenhouse gases.
Hofree has embarked on a mission to turn Ra’anana into a sustainable city. To that end, he has come out against the bonfires, calling, in a letter to parents’ committees, for alternative activities. If bonfires need be lit, he wrote in the letter on April 11, there should be only one main bonfire.
Hofree has already appealed to the principals and heads of the education system to try and reduce the bonfire phenomenon.
In his letter, the mayor freely acknowledged the difficulty of the request, but at the same time drew a straight line between the city’s sustainability efforts and the air pollution from the bonfires.
“As an educator, the mayor sees great importance in instilling in our children the historical values which connect us to the roots of our tradition and the Jewish heritage, and believes that the tradition of Lag Ba’omer can be celebrated while protecting the environment,” his office said in a statement.
“This is an excellent opportunity for an open dialogue with the children and youth to find the golden mean between preserving the character of the holiday and our commitment to conserving natural resources,” the statement continued.
“Lag Ba’omer bonfires, which are lit throughout the country, are a highly significant source of air pollution and greenhouse gases. Every year, the eve of Lag Ba’omer registers the highest levels of air pollution and greenhouse gases in Israel. To that, one must add the cutting down of trees and serious damage to the ground as a result of the fires,” Hofree wrote to parents.
He characterized the request as a way to help the city meet its obligations under the Copenhagen agreement to reduce emissions by 20 percent from “business as usual” by 2020.
Lag Ba’omer bonfires are not a commandment, but rather a tradition commemorating several events. Some believe it is the day Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, purported author of the Kabbalist text the Zohar
, died. It is said that on his deathbed, he imparted great secrets of the Kabbala to his students. It is in remembrance of this light that bonfires are lit. Some say an actual wall of fire surrounded his house.
Lag Ba’omer also marks the end of the divine plague that, according to the Talmud, wiped out 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students.
However religiously based its observance, the holiday is celebrated throughout Israeli society, with secular, as well as religious, schoolkids participating enthusiastically in class bonfires.
Few religious leaders were willing to respond to the Post
regarding Hofree’s letter. Ra’anana’s chief rabbi, Yitzhak Peretz, would not comment on Hofree’s request.
However, Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, has also called on the public to minimize pollution by having families group together for joint Lag Ba’omer bonfires.
The excessive smoke and soot resulting from the large number of bonfires, lingering for days after and monitored by the Environmental Protection Ministry, is harmful to people, especially those suffering from lung diseases, Metzger said last week, reminding the public of the Torah’s instruction to “pay careful heed to yourselves.”
Metzger also requested that the public refrain from cutting branches off fruit trees, a destructive action prohibited by the Torah, and to take great care not to use stolen timber or other unlawfully obtained materials as combustibles.
Haredim for the Environment head Yehuda Genut came out in support of Hofree’s call for minimal bonfires this week. He suggested lighting oil lamps instead to mark the day.
However, he also told the Post
that it was unlikely any haredim would heed Hofree’s letter.
“There isn’t much environmental awareness in the haredi community,” he said, explaining that haredim don’t consider issues in terms of their environmental significance.
Genut also criticized the timing of Hofree’s letter.
“It’s too late to come out with a letter like this a couple of weeks
before the holiday; he should have started an educational campaign long
ago,” he opined. Had the issue been contextualized differently – as one
of public safety or refraining from disturbing neighbors – it might
have more success, he added.
While Genut said he was in favor of contending with environmental
issues in the haredi world in environmental terms, he acknowledged that
that language was still very foreign to haredi communities.