Reclaiming Lag ba-Omer 

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Ronen Neuwirth

Can Israeli society follow the example of American Jewry and end the destructive tradition of Lag ba-Omer bonfires, perhaps opting to light candles instead? Maybe the COVID-19 pandemic will spur us to reconsider this dangerous practice.

From a very young age, my experience of Lag ba-Omer in Israel was something I looked forward to each year. Some of my fondest memories from my youth are of collecting firewood a month before Lag ba-Omer, competing with friends to build the biggest bonfire, and singing and playing around the fire from dusk till dawn on the actual holiday. Even the smell of smoke the next morning, following hundreds of bonfires all around the city, remains an unforgettable memory. Because I had such wonderful memories of this tradition, I never questioned it. 

Many years later, when I went on shelihut (Israeli emissary) to the U.S., I discovered another option for celebrating Lag ba-Omer. Learning that bonfires in the United States are generally illegal without prior police approval came as a cultural shock. Instead, I was invited to a kumzitz around several lit candles, where we sang and told stories. I found myself feeling disappointed and even frustrated by our inability to celebrate Lag ba-Omer the way we did in Israel.

However,  looking back now with a more mature perspective, I am very pleased that fewer bonfires will be lit in Israel on Lag ba-Omer this year. Beyond the fire hazards to which many children are exposed, the environmental damage caused by tens of thousands of bonfires each year is outrageous. This concern is not merely a generic “Green Agenda” but an authentic Jewish and halakhic requirement as well.

To begin, the source of the bonfire tradition relates to lighting candles and torches around the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, as the Arukh ha-Shulhan explains: “This day is named Hilula de-Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, and the tradition in Eretz Yisrael is to add special prayers and light candles on his holy grave” (Orah Hayyim 493:7). There is no halakhic source or significance to lighting bonfires, but there are strong halakhic requirements to protect the environment and prevent damage and pollution. One of many examples is the prohibition to build kilns in Jerusalem “due to the unsightly smoke [produced by kilns]” (Bava Kama 82b). In Jerusalem―the paradigm of holiness―spirituality is maintained not merely by “religious practices” but also by preventing pollution and keeping the environment clean, as expressed in other restrictions detailed in this gemara. This should become part of the fabric of every Jewish community that aspires to holiness and spiritual growth. 

There is a well-known midrash on a verse that says, “Consider God’s doing! Who can straighten what He has twisted?” (Ecclesiastes 7:13). This is how the Sages interpreted it: 

When the Holy One, Blessed be He, created the first human, God took him and led him around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world; if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you.” (Kohelet Rabba 7:13

Sefer ha-Hinukh (529) explains that this is the rationale behind the commandment of bal tashhit (do not destroy)―that is, to protect all of creation, as this is the role of humankind: 

The root of this commandment is to teach our souls to love that which is good and beneficial and to cling to it… And this is the way of the pious… they love peace and rejoice in the goodness of humankind… and they do not destroy even a grain of mustard in the world. And they are distressed by all loss and destruction that they see; and if they can prevent it, they will prevent any destruction that they can with all of their strength.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch further explains that when mankind abuses nature, Hashem will cause nature to take its revenge: 

Bal tashhit is the first and most general call of God, which comes to you, Human, when you recognize yourself as master of the earth … If you should regard the beings beneath you as objects without rights, not perceiving God Who created them, and therefore desire that they feel the might of your presumptuous mood… then God’s call proclaims to you, “Do not destroy! … If you destroy, if you ruin, at that moment you are not a human but an animal and have no right to mastery over the things around you… As soon as you use them unwisely, be it the greatest or the smallest, you commit treachery against My world, you commit murder and robbery against My property, you transgress against Me!” (Horeb, ch. 56 sec. 397) 

Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call from God, as Rabbi Hirsch hints: “This is what God calls to you. With this call does God represent the greatest and the smallest [creations] against you and grants the smallest and also the greatest [creations] a right against your presumptuousness.” When the smallest unseen creation becomes the worst enemy of humanity, it requires a reassessment of our attitude toward nature. 

The growing awareness and demand to protect the environment in modern times may have an even deeper underlying motivation. In my new book The Narrow Halakhic Bridge, I analyze many of the trends and transitions in contemporary society, based on the philosophy of Rav Kook regarding societal changes that will take place in times of athalta di-geulah (the beginning of redemption). One of the ramifications of Adam’s sin was God’s curse: “Cursed be the ground because of you. Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you” (Genesis 3:17-18). This curse is not meant to be humanity’s lot forever; rather, it is man’s responsibility to return the world to a repaired state, as Rav Kook writes: 

Man must use his cognitive essence to uplift the [labor of] tilling of the ground from its lowliness. God is doing this by shining His light [of wisdom] within human science… and eventually, [in times of the Redemption,] the Earth will be released from most of the spell [caused by Adam’s sin] for wisdom shall redeem it. (Orot ha-Kodesh 2, 1964

Today’s growing awareness of environmental matters brings us closer to a more redeemed, healed, and spiritual world―a world of peace between man and nature. 

Moreover, according to Rav Kook, one of the characteristics of the generation that marks the beginning of redemption is this growing moral sensitivity. In the past, when human morality was at a low point, the role of Halakhah was to fight against people’s corrupt nature. In a world of redemption and repair, human morality becomes elevated and is meant to elevate the world of Torah and Halakhah as well. We cannot judge the moral demands of society in our time as disconnected from the ongoing process of athalta di-geulah

Rabbi Kook wrote a comprehensive essay entitled “The Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace,” in which he outlines much of his vision. He argues that killing living beings was only an allowance given to mankind following the sins of the generation of the flood. In a redeemed world, he says, we will return to being vegetarians, as we were before the flood: 

We cannot describe in specifics what the light of human morality will be in the future… but we can surmise that, although humanity is not presently in a condition that allows the prohibition of the practice of killing animals, it will ultimately come to a more elevated position, and understand that it cannot remain at this [current] moral level. Not for naught did the Torah tell us that there were days when humankind was forbidden to kill animals. (Ein Ayah, Shabbat 2:15)

I suggest that social movements advancing environmental issues are integral to the process of athalta di-geulah. Does this mean that every activity undertaken by these movements is appropriate, correct, or justified? Of course not! Does it mean that we should oppose or annul the Halakhah when it seems wrong to us? God forbid! However, bonfires on Lag ba-Omer have no solid halakhic basis, and I believe that Israel’s rabbinical leadership should take this opportunity to raise a strong voice against them.

Will these words be widely heard and followed? Can Israeli society learn from American Jewry  and stop the destructive tradition of Lag ba-Omer bonfires? Maybe we can all celebrate around candles as we did at my first Lag ba-Omer American experience? One can only hope. At least this year, due to the coronavirus, there will be unity across the Jewish world as almost no bonfires will be lit, and we can perhaps return to the true origins of the minhag (custom) and light candles in memory of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai.

Ronen Neuwirth, formerly Rav of the Ohel Ari Congregation in Ra'anana, is author of The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age, soon to be published in May by Urim Publications.