Rethinking Lag Ba’omer

It may be time to rethink Lag Ba’omer. With environmental and safety concerns, the idea of bonfires being lit around the country needs to be rethought.

Lag B'aomer (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Lag B'aomer
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
It may be time to rethink Lag Ba’omer. With environmental and safety concerns at the fore, the idea of massive bonfires being lit around the country needs to be rethought.
As in previous years, there was anarchy on Sunday on Mount Meron. Acting on a dubious custom with an esoteric (i.e. fuzzy) moral message, around 200,000 “pilgrims” made their way up to the burial site of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai to celebrate Lag Ba’omer.
Inadequate public and private transportation, congested roads and severe overcrowding left thousands stranded for hours in the heat. With temperatures climbing to the upper 30s it should be no surprise that an over-worked Magen David Adom reported dozens of cases of faintings caused by dehydration.
And then there are the bonfires. On an average day, our firefighters deal with about 100 fire incidents across the nation, not including other nonflammatory emergencies.
But in a 10-hour period starting on Saturday night, they were called to put out 524 out-of-control blazes – more than 10 times the average.
Throughout the country, these bonfires are fueled by whatever materials – carcinogenic or not – seized or sequestered by Lag Ba’omer’s many dedicated zealots both young and old. And they are stoked by the dry, hot and dusty Khamsin winds blowing allergenic particles into our parts from the Arabian Peninsula. The huge billows of toxic smoke emitted by the fires and winds wreak havoc on the respiratory tracts of thousands of innocent citizens.
Awareness of the dangers of passive smoking has led to the gradual and by now nearly complete banning of cigarette, cigar and pipe smoking from public places. Yet, inexplicably, few dare to challenge the collective lunacy that impels perfectly reasonable people to set fire to combustibles of all kinds.
And this year, due to supreme sagacity of the Chief Rabbinate, not just one but two full days of mass pyromania will plague our firefighters, our Magen David Adom paramedics, our Nature and Parks Authority personnel and our Environmental Protection Ministry employees. Because Lag Ba’omer fell this year on Saturday night, the rabbis ruled that the bonfires should be postponed to Sunday night to prevent the desecration of Shabbat by those who might not wait until sundown to begin the festivities.
The decision reveals not just a complete lack of trust in the average God-fearing Jew who might conceivably heed the call of the Chief Rabbinate, it holds hostage tens of thousands of parents of small children. While teachers jump at the opportunity for a two-day vacation, the rest of us are torn between our responsibility as mothers and fathers and our obligation as breadwinners. And since some will heed the Chief Rabbinate and many will not, the torching and all its accompanying ills will be extended over a two-day period.
The epitome of the Lag Ba’omer absurdity, however, is the fact that there is very little, if any, evidence in Jewish tradition that Lag Ba’omer is a day that has any connection to Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai or, by extension, to bonfires.
Most classic Jewish sources mention Lag Ba’omer as a day on which the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased to die, not the anniversary of the death (yahrzheit) of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai.
Many central rabbinic figures such as Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the Hatam Sofer (1762-1839), questioned the reasoning behind Lag Ba’omer and wondered why, even if Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai had died on this day, it should for this reason become of day of joyous celebration instead of one of mournful reflection and introspective as is normally the case on the day a righteous person passed away.
As Torah scholar Rabbi Eliezer Brodt pointed out in a comprehensive 2011 article on the Seforim blog, the conflation of Lag Ba’omer with Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai’s yarzheit is a relatively new phenomenon dating back no much more than two centuries – and it is the result of a printing error. Considering the dubious Jewish source for setting bonfires on Lag Ba’omer compared to the suffering caused to those who “celebrate” the day, and to those who do not, as well as the tremendous damage to property and the environment – not to mention the potential for arson by terrorists at a time when firefighters are bogged down by bonfires run amok – the Chief Rabbinate should intervene.
Instead of extending the pointless and destructive custom over a two-day period, the rabbis should encourage more modest celebrations involving small fires in controlled environments.
If the chief rabbis fail to rise to the occasion, a politician, a rescue services officer, an environmentalist or an entire grassroots movement must step in and stop the madness.