Ask the Rabbi: May one steal wood for Lag Ba’omer bonfires?

Rashbi himself would undoubtedly remind all celebrants that the Torah prohibits stealing and admonishes us to guard our health zealously.

Lag B'aomer (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Lag B'aomer
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The question alone is repugnant, yet a quick glance at neighborhoods throughout Israel reveals children (and sometimes adults) entering building sites and other private properties to collect wood that does not belong to them. This phenomenon, alas, is the latest example of the excesses that have plagued this holiday, which itself stems from cryptic origins.
The marking of the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer, which falls on 18 Iyar, is not mentioned in biblical, talmudic or geonic literature. The Bible commands the Jewish people to count the seven weeks between the second day of Passover and Shavuot. This period later became associated with mourning because of a Talmudic tradition that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died during this period, leaving him to restore Torah study with five exceptional students, who included Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (Rashbi). In the geonic era, various scholars recorded a custom to abstain from getting married during this entire 49-day period, with no mention of the 33rd day.
In the early 13th century, however, a tradition emerged in Spanish and Provencal sources which asserted that Akiva’s students ceased dying after the 33rd day, or that they had only died on 32 days within that seven-week period. In these communities, Lag Ba’omer became a day of happiness in which the mourning period ended. Many medieval Ashkenazi communities also adopted a 33-day mourning period, but initiated it at the beginning of Iyar and completed it at Shavuot.
Prof. Daniel Sperber has argued that this period was chosen since it also marked the massacres that took place during the month of Iyar during the Crusades. In any case, in classic medieval legal sources relating to the Omer period, Lag Ba’omer is at best a minor holiday which was ritually commemorated by not reciting penitential rites and ending (or pausing) mourning rites.
The transformation of Lag Ba’omer into a day of major celebration emerged, at the earliest, in the 16th century when the day became connected to the legacy of Rashbi, who is buried in Meron and to whom authorship of the kabbalistic Zohar has been traditionally attributed. Many legends emerged in 17th-century mystical writings that on this date, Rashbi emerged from his legendary cave, or that it was the date of the death, or that this was the day that R. Akiva began to teach him. As historians Avraham Ya’ari, Meir Benayahu and Boaz Huss have noted, the multiple explanations point to the fact that the origins of this celebration remain quite murky.
Many medieval sources attest that some Jews traveled on pilgrimages to pray at the graves of great sages. (The controversial practice of praying at cemeteries, already disputed in ancient sources, has been previously discussed in my column, “A Grave Matter,” available online.) In the 13th century, for example, Jews (and Muslims!) would regularly go to the Galilee to pray at the graves of Hillel and Shammai on the minor holiday Pessah Sheni, 14 Iyar. Others visited the Jerusalem grave of Samuel the Prophet between 28 Iyar and Shavuot, where they lit great torches and sang joyful songs.
It appears that as exiles from the Spanish Peninsula arrived in Israel in the 16th centuries, the grave of Rashbi became most popular, especially under the influence of mystics who were inspired by the Zohar, that had been initially disseminated in Spain.
However, while famous 16th-century Safed kabbalists made semi-annual 10-day pilgrimages to the cave in Meron, they were held in Tishrei and before Shavuot and were seemingly intended for the exclusive meditations of esteemed mystics. Indeed, some Safed kabbalists protested the excesses of mass pilgrimages to Meron, which included promiscuous and other impious behavior. Yet by the late 17th and 18th centuries, mass Lag Ba’omer pilgrimages to Meron were justified by mystical figures and became further ingrained within Jewish culture.
Many European scholars lambasted this practice. Figures like rabbis Moshe Sofer and Joseph Nathanson questioned how a yahrzeit could become a day of celebration and protested the wasteful burning of clothing in mass bonfires. Others, including rabbis Ovadia Yosef and Yosef Messas in more recent times, protested the slaughter and consumption of animals on or near the grave. Yet under the combined influence of Sephardi mystical circles, some hassidic groups, and Zionists who connected Rashbi to the Bar Kochba rebellion, Lag Ba’omer has become entrenched, for better or for worse, within contemporary Israeli culture.
Yet the lighting of bonfires, claimed by some to symbolize the glow of Rashbi’s teaching (Zohar literally means “radiance of light”), cannot be justified when done with stolen wood or without proper safety precautions. Rashbi himself would undoubtedly remind all Lag Ba’omer celebrants that the Torah prohibits stealing and admonishes us to guard our health zealously.
The writer teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel, directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars and is a junior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.