The unmistakable crisp smell of burning wood filled the streets of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) city of Bnei Brak Wednesday night as residents gathered to celebrate the holiday of Lag Ba’Omer, lighting huge bonfires despite concerns by officials across Israel.Notwithstanding of a dry heat and temperatures pushing 85 degrees Fahrenheit in the early part of the evening, thousands of haredi residents gathered to join in celebration of the life of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the 2nd century sage attributed with authoring the Zohar, the central text of Kabbalah. Lag Ba’Omer, the 33rd day between Passover and Shavuot, marks the anniversary of his death, and hundreds of thousands of Jews flock to his grave in a cave outside of the town of Meron, near the Sea of Galilee. Throughout Israel, many take part in constructing elaborate bonfires in commemoration of the rabbi and the fire for Torah in addition to the Bar Kokhba rebels-- who lit signal bonfires during the Judean revolt-- but this year many celebrations were scaled back due to disagreeable weather.However, in Bnei Brak the party went on as usual for the most part, with the first bonfires appearing just before sundown near Highway 4.In the city, under the constant pop of firecrackers, streets were filled with Hassidim dancing, singing the songs of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and dancing around bonfires of all sizes. Despite being confined to specific locations for safety concerns, residents flocked to bonfires and stayed there well past sundown to mark the celebration of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Across the city, signs cautioned “in our city, On Lag Ba'Omer we don't burn our lives," cautioning residents not to burn couches, gasoline, paper bags or tires.
“Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, when he passed [on from the world] left behind a special Torah [teaching]- Torah Yesodi, a secret Torah,” explained one resident, who preferred to be referred to only as Shmuel. “The teaching is compared to light and [the holiday is a] celebration of that light,” he said, surrounded by his children near a communal bonfire.“You might think a candle would suffice, but we’ve expanded it,” he quipped. One bonfire, behind a boys' high school, stood 20 feet tall, flanked by two smaller bonfires; watched by the attentive eye of young and old alike. Children, some as young as a few months, in strollers, on bikes and on scooters gathered to watch compatriots as they wheeled in a shopping cart full of wood stacks to add to the massive flames. Elsewhere, the fire department was quick to put out unauthorized bonfires. As a small pit put together by a group of school children near Maayanei Hayeshua Hospital was doused down by fire crews, boys and girls alike were quick to scamper to a higher vantage point, gathering around the dying embers of the flame. Down the street loudspeakers blared the piuyyt “Bar Yochai,” written about Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.“Bar Yochai – fortunate are you, anointed with joyous oil over and above your companions,” a choir of elementary-aged boys sang. Despite the heat and the warnings against lighting bonfires, residents nevertheless turned out for the spiritual night in droves, bottles of water in hand, focused on the significance of the eve. “There’s fear [of the dangers], yes,” Shmuel admitted, “but that’s why we didn’t do it at home.”
Bnei Brak residents watch a Lag Ba"omer bonfire , May 2nd 2018. (Credit: Avraham Gold)