Taking the fire out of Lag Ba'omer amid coronavirus in Israel

Just as COVID-19 put a crimp in Passover Seders, Remembrance Day grieving of bereaved families, and Independence Day celebrations, so too is it altering the Lag Ba'omer celebrations this year.

Lag Baomer bonfire.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Lag Baomer bonfire.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The customs of Passover, Remembrance Day and Independence Day, which were all curtailed this year because of restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus, will undoubtedly rebound when the virus vanishes.
But how about Lag Ba'omer, that minor holiday that began Monday evening and which in the mind of many in this country is associated with large bonfires; bonfires for which children – both religious and secular – collect wood for weeks prior.
Just as COVID-19 put a crimp on Passover Seders, with extended families not being able to celebrate together, and just as it made it impossible for bereaved families to visit the graves of their loved ones on Remembrance Day, and just as it poured water on the traditional Independence Day barbecues and communal activities, so too is it altering the Lag Ba’omer celebrations this year.
The cabinet last week banned all bonfires throughout the country – with the exception of three that were lit at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron. But even at the tomb, instead of some 250,000 people gathering there to celebrate the Talmudic sage, only a gathering of some 50 people were allowed at the three different site locations.
Lag Ba’omer is the 33rd day in the counting of the 49 harvest days between the second day of Passover and the Shavuot holiday. It serves as a respite in the semi-mourning period marking the death of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva in what the Talmud said was a plague, and which later commentators said was actually the Bar Kochva revolt. On Lag Ba’omer there was a respite in the deaths.
In the 16th century, the Golden Age of the Kabbalah, the day took on additional meaning as the yahrzeit – anniversary of death – of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, to whom tradition attributed authorship of the Zohar, and bonfires were lit to commemorate the light of the Torah that he brought into the world.
While this year was the first time that the country essentially barred traditions associated with Passover, Remembrance Day and Independence day, this is not the first year that the tradition of the bonfires – very much a part of Israeli culture – were curtailed.
For instance, in 2016 there were public discussions about the necessity and wisdom of the custom when bonfires caused numerous fires around the country, spreading in the Jerusalem area and sweeping towards Mevaseret Zion and the neighborhoods of Gilo, Ramot and Romema.
In 2017, the holiday fell on a Saturday night, which mean that the traditional bonfires would be held in Meron and in the ultra-Orthodox communities on that night, but the Chief rabbinate asked the Education Ministry to have school bonfires pushed off until Sunday night, so that the Shabbat would not be desecrated. This meant two nights of fires everywhere, leading some to wonder out loud whether all that pollution and environmental damage was really necessary or worth it.
In 2018 restrictions were placed on the fires because of unseasonably hot and dry weather, and a concern that it would lead to fires, with the Haifa, Tel Aviv, Hadera and Modi’in municipalities among those requesting that bonfires not be lit in their cities, and the Education Ministry frowning on any bonfire events to mark the day.
And in 2019 the weather was even hotter and dryer than the year before and the Fire and Rescue Services clamped strict restrictions, banning any fires in forests and placing limits on the height of the fires and the distance that they could be built one to the other.
And now comes the coronavirus Lag B’omer of 2020, where the fires were banned by cabinet decree, creating a situation where people may be starting to get used to the idea that a once very Israeli tradition may be in the process of being phased out.
This does not mean that the holiday itself will not be observed, but it’s customs may be gradually changing. Up until now this was a holiday that was observed by almost  all sectors of Jewish Israeli society – secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox – though each putting a different emphasis on it.
The secular placed an emphasis on the Bar Kochva revolution, which was an important part of the Zionist ethos, while for the religious the day’s thrust was on the legacy of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
Shmuel Rosner, who with the pollster Camil Fuchs wrote a book called #IsraeliJudaism: Portrait of a Cultural Revolution,  wrote in Maariv  last year that 51% of the Israeli Jewish public said they light fires on Lag Ba’omer, and this crosses the entire spectrum of Israeli religiosity.
He noted already last year, however, that there was a trend toward less fire lighting, as a result of the awareness of the damage this causes the environment, enhanced sensitivity to environmental issues, and because Israel has simply grown.
Six and a half million Jews lighting fires, he wrote, is not the same as two million Jews doing so.
But since lighting the fires is such a quintessentially Israeli  part of the holiday, what will happen to it if the fires are curtailed? Will new content be poured into the day, and new traditions be created that will enable it to remain a day that has something for everyone across the Israeli Jewish spectrum to grasp onto?

If not, as Rosner noted, it may turn into a day on the calendar like the Fast of the 17th of Tamuz, which only the religiously observant generally commemorate, or Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s liberation of Jerusalem in the Six Day War, a day, for the most part, only widely celebrated by the religious Zionist camp.
The bonfires have been what made Lag Ba’omer a day all segments of Israeli Jewish society could grab onto. What happens when those fires begin to lose their charm?