Why the Chasidic world is set alight on Israeli's bonfire night

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims will gather in the northern Israeli town of Mount Meron at the weekend for Lag Ba'Omer


On Sunday, the eyes of the Jewish world will once again turn to a small hamlet in the Upper Galilee and in particular to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Tradition teaches that the festival of Lag Ba’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, is the day of the hilulah — the anniversary of the death — of Bar Yochai nearly 1,900 years ago.

Huge crowds will cram into Meron to witness the high point of the day’s events — the lighting of the first bonfire, which will take place on Saturday night, the start of the Jewish day.

The only problem is that the provenance of this custom is not clear. The greatest of all Jewish medieval travellers, Benjamin of Tudela, visited Meron in 1170 and listed the rabbis buried there, highlighting the graves of Hillel and Shammai  but making no reference to Bar Yochai and certainly no mention of a hilulah. 

This leaves us with a historical conundrum. When and why did Hillel and Shammai vacate the scene and move their graves to secondary locations away from the main tomb in favour of Bar Yochai?

Given the uncertain origins of this celebration, the events surrounding the 2017 hilulah are truly perplexing. We quite rightly take pride in our tradition of robust inter-rabbinic disagreement. Occasionally, however, rabbinic argument appears to descend into arcane and obscure reasoning designed to justify self-interest. 
What appears to be such an argument has recently become headline news in Israel. 

Upwards of 100,000 visitors squeeze into the area around the tomb of Bar Yochai in Meron each year to witness a galaxy of stars of the Chasidic world waiting to take their turn to light their own bonfires. When Lag ba’Omer falls on Sunday, the crowd arrives on Friday and stays over Shabbat so that there is no delay in the moment of the lighting of the very first pyre at the start of the Jewish day on Saturday night.

Over the years, as the number of visitors has grown, the mood has become increasingly animated and the Israeli police have had to deploy hundreds of officers to ensure their safety. Now, while the visitors will stay over Shabbat, the police officers, largely non-observant, will travel on Shabbat in order to be in place on time.

So which takes precedence? The observance of Shabbat by the Israeli police force or the prompt lighting of the first Lag ba’Omer bonfire? By tradition, that honour is accorded to the Rebbe of the Boyan dynasty, Rav Nachum Dov Brayer, whose grandfather bought the rights to the lighting from the Sephardi authorities responsible for the site. Although generally considered a rare mix of piety and moderation on this issue, the Boyaner Rebbe is not budging. There is to be no delay in the timing of his moment. He lights immediately after nightfall. 

In his support, a coalition of the utterly unlikely has coalesced. Knesset members of the ultra-Orthodox Agudah faction, the Chief Rabbi for all Holy Places and the Chief Rabbi of the Israeli police. In bitter opposition are the local Chief Rabbis of Safed and Meron and a host of mainstream halachic authorities.

A study of visiting rabbis and geographers to Meron in the 16th and 17th centuries reveals the switch from Hillel and Shammai to Bar Yochai took place after 1492 when Spanish exiles arrived in the Galilee. Jewish culture in Spain was no longer that of Maimonides. Synthesis with, and admiration of, the broader culture was very much a thing of the past. 

By 1492, Jews felt let down by the broader culture and looked inward towards an exclusively Jewish way of looking at things. This was the moment of triumph for the Kabbalah, mystical Judaism, over Maimonidean rationalism. 

The Spanish rabbis carried the greatest work of the Kabbalah under their arms as they made to their new homes in the Galilean town of Safed. The Zohar took centre stage in rabbinic culture and Shimon bar Yochai, the man responsible for the ideas therein, became the most important of the rabbis of antiquity.

So the battle for the timing of the First Lighting is a fight over a minhag just 500 years old.

The current rabbinic furore reflects the saying minhag Yisrael din hu, “the customs of Israel have the strength of law”. The Torah is Divine in its source and is authority imposed from above. Minhagim are the creations of the Jewish people, which have resonated with us and found an echo within our souls. 

The preference of one over the other is not as straightforward as one might imagine. The hilulah at Meron may be a relatively recent creation but what the Rebbe of Boyan is defending is the awe-inspiring creativity of the Jewish people and there is nothing arcane about that.

Rabbi Pollak works for UJIA and Pajes promoting Israel and Jewish education in Jewish schools

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive