Lag Ba’omer: Of fires and ‘friers’

Both groups, the firefighters and reservists, have a “fire” inside of them.

Lag Baomer bonfire 390  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Lag Baomer bonfire 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
My 17-year-old nephew’s eyes lit up as he told me of his latest triumph.
“I did it myself!” he exclaimed.
“Did what?” I asked.
“I put out my first fire!”
My nephew, following in the footsteps of his older sister, is volunteering after school. While his sister passed first aid training and volunteered at the local Magen David Adom station (riding along on ambulance calls and assisting in emergencies); my nephew chose to volunteer for the local fire department. He went through all the requisite training and finally got to be involved in putting out a “small” fire.
I thought about my nephew, the junior kabai (fireman), as Lag Ba’omer approaches. Certainly Lag Ba’omer is a big night for fire brigades across the country, ensuring that bonfires are kept under control. My nephew will proudly wear his uniform (consisting of a T-shirt and a jacket) as he and his fellow kabbaim go out and patrol on Lag Ba’omer eve.
But Lag Ba’omer isn't just a busy night for firefighters, it’s also a special night for (or more correctly, used to be a special night for) miluimnikim (army reservists) as well. For several years, Lag Ba’omer was traditionally designated as day to salute army reservists. The army would honor the reservists as a whole and also give special awards to outstanding reservists.
True, the reservists often complain about their conditions and length of service – and often refer to themselves as friers (suckers) for serving their country when others don’t – but at least they knew that once a year, on Lag Ba’omer, the army recognized their contributions with special events just for them.
That was true up until a month ago when the army and the Defense Ministry announced that they had decided to cancel the annual salute to the reservists on Lag Ba’omer due to budgetary constraints. The reservists were justifiably outraged. The “friers” had been victimized once again.
Last week, my younger brother returned from a two-week miluim stint in the greater Hebron area. Aside from the standard guard shifts and patrols, he quietly told me (sans the enthusiasm our nephew has for firefighting) about late-night searches they conducted which resulted in the confiscation of hidden weapons from would-be terrorists. If reserve duty like that doesn’t warrant at least a little recognition once a year on Lag Ba’omer, I don’t know what does.
The Israeli firefighters were featured heavily in the news when the terrible Carmel Forrest Fire ravaged the northern part of the county a couple of years ago. Many involved in fighting the fire lost their lives or were injured. But now the firefighters face a different kind of battle – a political one.
The Firefighter’s Bill, a bill that would establish a “national” fire brigade to better fight future fires, is waiting on the table. The last-minute maneuvering by our lead politicians to avoid dissolving the Knesset and holding new elections will likely still cause a delay in passing the bill, but hopefully not as much of a delay as new Knesset elections would have.
Lag Ba’omer is about more than just bonfires. We have two historic events connected to Lag Ba’omer. Firstly, the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) states that during the time of Rabbi Akiva, 24,000 of his students died from a divinely sent plague during the counting of the omer. The Talmud then goes on to say that this was because they did not show proper respect to one another, befitting their level; they begrudged each other the spiritual levels attained by their comrades.
Jews celebrate Lag Ba’omer, the 33rd day of the count, as the traditional day that this plague ended. Secondly, kabbalistic tradition recounts that the great sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai died on Lag Ba’omer and that the sun miraculously refused to set until he expired, hence the hassidic tradition of candles and bonfires. Customs of mourning held during the period from Pessah to Shavuot are suspended or stopped altogether on Lag Ba’omer.
But what does Lag Ba’omer mean today? Perhaps the two ideas, the mourning of Rabbi Akiva’s students and the lighting of bonfires for Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, are connected.
Think of a bonfire. It provides warmth. It can heat food. People gather around it and sing. Everyone is attracted to a fire. A fire brings people together. Perhaps the idea of Lag Ba’omer and the lighting of bonfires is just that, to bring people together. Rabbi Akiva’s students failed to properly appreciate one other and grew apart; the bonfires of Lag Ba’omer bring us together.
Now that we have gathered around the bonfire, let’s not forget those who get called at a moment’s notice to put our fires, the kabbaim, and those who get called up and drop everything (family, jobs, etc.) to shore up our military, the miluimnikim.
Both groups, the firefighters and reservists, have a “fire” inside of them. Their inner fire reminds me of the popular Israeli song with the line, “Elef kabbaim lo yatzlichu lechabot oti” (a thousand firefighters won’t succeed in extinguishing me). All the kabbaim and miluimnikin ask for is for a little recognition and appreciation. On this Lag Ba’omer, let's acknowledge them – it’s the least we can do.
The writer has an MA in creative writing from Bar-Ilan University.