A bonfire seen on Lag Ba'omer.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Next Wednesday evening, hundreds of thousands of Jews across the nation and the world will celebrate Lag Ba’omer – believed to be the day that the second-century Jewish sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai died.
Hundreds of tons of wood and other combustibles will be set afire in huge bonfires. While we respect the importance of tradition, we would like to make a modest suggestion: For the sake of our environment, let us try to keep the burning to a minimum.
Bar Yochai, according to Jewish tradition, was a key figure in the formation of the Kabbala, the esoteric teachings of Judaism. Many still believe he was the author of the Book of Zohar, the foundational text of Kabbala, though we now know that the 13th-century rabbi Moshe de Leon wrote the book.
On Lag B’omer eve, the faithful light bonfires that are supposed to symbolize the tremendous light that Bar Yochai brought to the world through his esoteric teachings.
The holiday is particularly popular among hassidim and Sephardim, whose customs were more strongly influenced by kabbala.
With the establishment of the state, Zionism coopted Lag Ba’omer, imbuing it with meaning that has relevance for contemporary secular Israelis. In this version of the holiday the focus is on Bar Yochai’s actions as a rebel against Roman rule. The day also symbolizes Jewish military resistance during the failed Bar Kochba revolt of 135 CE, led by Rabbi Akiva and his students, who are said to have died during this period. The bonfires are said to represent the signal fires used by Bar Kochba’s warriors to warn of approaching enemies.
But year after year, according to data provided by the Environmental Protection Ministry, Lag Ba’omer carries the dubious honor of having the worst air pollution of the year, even more than Independence Day, which is commonly celebrated with elaborate barbecues.
The day contrasts sharply with Yom Kippur, which is the day with the least air pollution, because industry shuts down and Israelis – both religious and secular – refrain from driving.
Bonfires need not be abolished altogether. The tradition can be maintained. But a number of steps can be taken to reduce the air pollution.
Suggestions have been made by an organization called Haredim L’Sviva, which can be roughly translated as “fearful for the environment,” but which is also a play on the Hebrew world “haredi,” which connotes both ultra-Orthodox and God-fearing.
Since Yehuda Gannot, a haredi attorney, established the organization a decade ago, it has worked to increase awareness of environmental issues among the country’s ultra-Orthodox.
Gannot recommends reducing the number of bonfires.
He said that in the haredi neighborhoods of Petah Tikva where he lives, a number of rabbis have called to make a few community bonfires instead of a lot of smaller ones.
This would reduce air pollution, and also the number of accidents by ensuring that a few fires are well-guarded by responsible adults.
Gannot has suggested encouraging more communities to adopt the custom of lighting small oil lamps instead of huge bonfires. The Shomer Emunim (Guardian of the Faith) hassidic dynasty, a highly insular group closely allied with Satmar Hassidism, lights olive oil lamps to commemorate Bar Yochai.
Meanwhile, the Bnei Brak Municipality has opened a campaign among the city’s predominantly haredi population of 190,000 to refrain from setting fire to substances that are harmful to the health. Schoolchildren will be taught about the dangers of burning plastic and rubber.
The idea is to make bonfires as “green” as possible.
It is unrealistic to expect Jews to abandon the custom of lighting bonfires on Lag Ba’omer. Those who do should, however, be sensitive to the tremendous amount of air pollution this burning causes. They should also take safety precautions.
Remaining faithful to tradition might entail the lighting of bonfires. But there are other values in the same Jewish tradition that are arguably even more important, including taking assiduous care not to harm another person.
Limiting the number of bonfires, refraining from burning harmful substances, and adopting alternatives to the bonfire, such as lighting candles and lamps, can all help make this Lag B’omer a little more green.