How bonfires became a burning issue in Israel

Rabbis want to postpone the festival of Lag ba’Omer, which begins Saturday night, for a day.


By Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, May 19, 2011
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Lighting up the night: children in Israel celebrate Lag ba’Omer with the customary bonfire that ushers in the festival

Lighting up the night: children in Israel celebrate Lag ba’Omer with the customary bonfire that ushers in the festival

My most extraordinary religious experience took place on a mountain top in the north of Israel. The winding path to Mount Meron was lined with holy men, charlatans and peddlers pressing me to buy blessings, trinkets, food and drink. At the summit were hundreds of tents belonging to Sephardi families who camp out for a week before the festival; tied to each tent was a young lamb.

All night, people celebrated Lag ba'Omer by praying, singing and dancing around bonfires. As the sun rose, morning prayers were said, the three-year-old boys were taken for haircuts while the sheep queued for the shochet. The air was filled with the sounds of prayer, song and the pungent smell of roast lamb.

This annual pilgrimage is attended by some 500,000 people, making it the largest public event in Israel. It marks the cessation of a terrible plague which decimated the students of Rabbi Akiva (Talmud Yevamot 62b) and the yahrzeit of the great scholar and mystic Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose tomb is the focus of the festivities and whose great spiritual light is mirrored in the bonfires.

Throughout the rest of the country, it is a national holiday, and schoolchildren and their families revel in building bonfires, holding barbecues, picnics and parades. But this year's celebrations have sparked a dispute and the row is making the headlines. The problem is that Lag ba'Omer starts on Saturday night; if the celebrations go ahead as planned, thousands of members of the emergency services will break Shabbat in order to supply the necessary cover for this mega event. Many families are likely to start their bonfires before nightfall, so a religious holiday will lead to mass desecration of Shabbat.

The Chief Rabbis, supported by former Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Rav Ovadia Yosef, are calling for the postponement of the national holiday. They want Lag ba'Omer celebrations to start on Sunday night with the holiday on Monday instead of Sunday.

It may seem strange to tamper with the Jewish calendar, but there is strong precedent for such modifications and for adapting festival practices to preserve Shabbat observance. Blowing of the shofar is one of the highlights of the Jewish year and although it is mandated by the Torah, the rabbis forbade it whenever Rosh Hashanah coincided with Shabbat. This was because carrying in a public place is forbidden on the Sabbath and they feared that people requiring last-minute coaching in shofar blowing might carry their shofar through the streets on that day. Likewise, they banned the shaking of the lulav on the Shabbat of Succot. When Purim fell on Shabbat, they switched its date altogether, so that no one would carry their megillah in the streets on the Sabbath.

This talmudic campaign to prevent even the remotest possibility of Sabbath desecration set the pattern for our times. Two thousand years later, the Israeli rabbinate recognised that Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day for Israel's fallen soldiers) and Yom Ha'atzmaut (Independence Day) involved enormous security arrangements and logistical preparations, potentially creating mass Sabbath desecration. In 1957, it was agreed that national commemorations would not begin on Saturday night, but be postponed to later in the week; the result is that Yom Ha'atzmaut is almost never observed on the correct date.

The rabbis who oppose altering the timing of Lag ba'Omer celebrations lead ultra-religious communities where there is no danger of Shabbat desecration, so they see no reason for government interference in their lives. Lag ba'Omer's very name reflects the date of its observance as the 33rd day of the Omer, so why change it after thousands of years?

Any shift in the calendar would disrupt the finely calibrated periods of mourning which mark the tragedies that took place during the Omer period. These rabbis have found unlikely allies in the Ministry of Education and among the nation's maths teachers since any changes to the Lag ba'Omer holiday would interrupt the national maths matriculation exams.

Matched against these forces are some of the most significant religious-Zionist rabbis who view the state of Israel as an integral part of contemporary Jewish life. They argue that it behoves a Jewish state to relate to the needs of Judaism and the entire Jewish people. Where a custom of lighting bonfires threatens the observance of one of the Ten Commandments, they believe the state must step in.

Shabbat is the trump card of Jewish life. It overrules many other practices because it is our weekly affirmation that God created the world, created humanity in His image and rescued our ancestors from slavery in Egypt. Shabbat reminds us of God's sovereignty and His demand that all people are entitled to dignity and freedom. According to the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva's students died in the plague because they did not show sufficient respect to one another. So whether we celebrate this festival the day after Shabbat or two days later, it will be a powerful reminder of our responsibilities to respect the rights and dignity of every human being.

Gideon Sylvester is rabbi of Tribe Israel

    Last updated: 11:02am, May 19 2011