Thursday, May 12, 2011

Fires Are Fun - Aren’t They?

Lag B’Omer is just around the corner. It is one week from this coming Sunday and begins the night before on Motzoi Shabbos – Saturday night.

Lag B’Omer gets its name from the number of days counted in Sefira, the 50 day count from the 2nd day of Pesach until Shavuos when we celebrate receiving the Torah at Sinai. The word Lag is taken from the 2 Hebrew letters Lamed and Gimmel which is the number 33. Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day of the Omer.

The day is celebrated because it is the day when the 40,000 students of the great Tanna, Rebbi Akiva stopped being slaughtered. Until that day we observe an annual 33 day period of mourning during Sefira for their deaths. There are various opinions as to when those deaths actually occurred, but all agree that it is during Sefira and that on Lag B’Omer there were no deaths.

The most traditional way of observing this day – especially in Israel is by building bonfires at night – this year on Motzoi Shabbos. An article in Ha’aretz reports that for the first time Sephardi Gadol Rav Ovadia Yosef has ruled that celebrations of that day be postponed until Sunday night. It is feared that there will be much Chilul Shabbos in preparation for those evening bonfires. He was followed by both Ahkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar who made similar rulings.

Guess who doesn’t care? If you guessed the Toldos Aharon Chasidim of Meah Shearim - you have guessed right. I guess they don’t care about Chilul Shabbos. I of course realize that none of the Toldos Aharon Chasidim will be Mechalel Shabbos. But they are not the ones that Rav Yosef and the two Chief rabbis are worried about. It is their fellow Jews who may not be that carefull about it that are their concern. Apparently they don’t care about that. But that is in complete charcter for them. Arvus – the Mitzvah of one Jew caring for another is apparently not in their vocabulary. Unless it is on their terms. And they are going to celebrate Lag B’Omer on time – Chilul Shabbos for others in Klal Yisroel be damned! It’s their problem, not Toldos Aharon’s problem.

I am not surprised by this lack of concern for the spiritual welfare of fellow Jews. Their leaders have clearly demonstrated their lack of concern time and again by looking the other way or with tepid condemnations when some of their members have caused havoc and mayhem in the streets of Jerusalem in pursuit of their own religious agendas.

I have lost count of the number of times they have in this way created a Chilul Hashem (which they think is a Kiddush HaShem). I recall an interview with one of their zealots where he was asked why he wasn’t concerned about chasing secular Jews away from observance by their violet tactics. He responded that those Jews were Reshaim and beyond help. There was no requirement tone down their violent protests in order to reach out to them.

So they are going to go to the main city in Israel where here is the biggest celebration, Meron – a city near Tzefas where the great Tanna Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai is buried. Lag B’Omer is the anniversary of his death - the Yahrzeit. It is considered a big honor to light the giant bonfire there and it is usually given to a prominent Chasidic Rebbe. I believe last year it was the Boyaner Rebbe. (He may get it every year - I'm not sure.) And the revelry there rivals that of any party anywhere in Klal Yisroel. I’m sure this will happen there next Motzoi Shabbos.

What is the source of this disturbing practice? Obviously it is not the Torah. But it is not the Gemarah either. There is no source for starting fires on Lag B’Omer anywhere in Chazal. It is entirely made up. And I’m not sure which arsonist thought it was a good idea to do that on this day.

Let us examine the some of the Halacha and other elements of this day.

I must ask, what kind of Yom Tov is Lag B’Omer anyway? What miracle happened on that day? As I said celebrating Lag B’Omer as a Yom Tov is not mentioned anywhere in the Gemarah. Nor is it mentioned in any of the Poskim. It is not even hinted at. All it says in Halacha is that we should not make eulogies on that day and that we may not fast.

It should also be noted that the students of Rebbe Akiva were dying by the thousands up to Lag B’Omer. Why is it something to celebrate that it finally stopped? Not one of them survived! All of them died! What is all the Simcha about?

By way of analogy can anyone imagine celebrating this way when the allies finally liberated the concentration camps and saw all those corpses lying around? Would anyone there have suggested building giant bonfires and then ‘going crazy’ with fun?

Nor should the fact that R’ Shimon Bar Yochoi’s Yahrzeit is on that day be a reason to celebrate. If anything one fasts on the Yahrzeit of a Tzadik. One does not party!

And yet party they do. Tens of thousands of Jews all over Israel march up to Meron and party like there was no tomorrow!

And how does the rest of the country celebrate? By building dangerous bonfires all over Israel Some public and some private! What possible purpose is there for this custom? Where does it come from? And how much of it is really a celebration L’Shem Shomayim?

How does this kind of celebration in any way serve God?! And yet Lag B’Omer bonfires is a big deal all over Israel. They are all over the pIace. And it doesn’t matter whether one is Dati or Charedi. They all seem to enjoy it even if it impinges on the freedoms of others. I recall one year when I happened to be in Israel at this time of year. One Dati fellow decided he was going to build a bonfire in his own backyard.

The problem was that his backyard was part of a huge multi level condominium complex and the smoke and fumes from the bonfire ended up in some of the condos above his backyard - many of them with small children and infants! His neighbors begged him not to build it. But he didn’t care. He was going to have his bonfire. I guess when it comes to being selfish about one’s religious practices this Dati fellow has much in common with Toldos Ahron.

Portions of this post are based on Torah L’Daas