Friday, May 04, 2018

Bonfires, Cellphones, and Lag B'Omer

Collecting wood for a bonfire - typical sight in Israel on Lag B'Omer (Ynet)
I don’t understand the obsession that some Jews have with fire. But every year on Lag B’Omer bonfires get built in many communities. This custom has been increasing over the year where it is now very common. Especially in Israel. If one ventures out in the evening one will come upon many such fires burning in a variety of places – from Shul courtyards sponsored by the Shul, to individual bonfires in private front yards.

Lag Bomer is the 33rd day of counting  Omer in the period called Sefira. We are required to count each of 49 days until  the 50th day. Which is  Shavuos when we celebrate receiving the Torah at Sinai. That was full the extent of the Torah's obligation. But something happened later in history that added additional obligations during part of this period.

Back in the days of the Mishna thousands of Rebbe Akiva’s students died via  a plague because - as the Gemarah tells us - they did not properly honor each other.  We are now required to observe a period of mourning during that time. There is some dispute about which portion of Sefira those students died. But all agree that on the 33rd day - Lag B’Omer - they stopped dying. 

As a result we treat it as a minor holiday. Which for me always meant not saying Tachanun, being able to listen to live music again, attend weddings, and being able to take a haircut.  No reason at all to light bonfires. 

Growing up I never saw anyone or any organization do that. Not in my elementary day school, Yeshivath Beth Yehuda in Detroit; not in high school in either Telshe or Skokie (HTC). Nor in any Shul I ever attended. Now it happens everywhere.

So where does that now very popular Minhag come from? Well…something else happened on Lag B’Omer. The great Tanna, Rebbe Shmon Bar Yochoi died on that day. He has been attributed as the author of the Kabalistic work known as the Zohar. It is said that in the day he died he revealed the secrets of Kabalah. To signify that - a huge bonfire is lit to great fanfare and huge attendance at his gravesite in Israel in the city of Meron. 

How a bonfire has become a symbol for that is somewhat of a mystery to me. Although I read somewhere that that it is supposed to signify the great spiritual light he gave to the world through the Zohar. This event in Meron has mostly always been a  Chasidic and Sephardi event. Chasidic Rebbes of note are honored by handing them a torch to start the bonfire. This event attracts huge crowds from across the spectrum of Orthodoxy and beyond.

I am not opposed to Minhag. As long as they are harmless. But when it  develops into something harmful - I become fully opposed to it. That is the case here. There is absolutely no Mitzvah to light fires on Lag B’Omer. But that hasn’t stopped them from becoming a growing phenomenon. 

This is a Minhag that some people do at the expense of others. I recall one case in Israel where a Religious Zionist fellow just had to have a bonfire for his children on that day. He  built  and lit a bonfire in his front yard right next his first floor condo. Smoke from that bonfire traveled up into the second floor and into the bedroom of a condo where children were sleeping. When confronted by the father he said he had a right to do anything he wanted on his own property and told him to get into the spirit of Lag B’Omer. He has continued doing it every year. Pretty selfish.

But that’s nothing compared to how many fires  go out of control in Israel each year by individuals who build fires in unsafe areas.I have been told that Lag B’Omer is the fire department’s busiest day. But nothing I have ever heard about these fires compares to what happened in London’s Charedi neighborhood, of Stamford Hills. From the YNet
Some 30 Jews were wounded Wednesday night in the northeastern London neighborhood of Stamford Hill after an explosion occurred during a Lag B'Omer bonfire celebration. Ten people wounded in the blast were taken to a local hospital.
The bonfire was lit by the local congregation's rabbi in front of the local Beth Hamedrash Biala synagogue, and when a lit torch touched its base, a large fireball erupted and appeared to engulf those standing in close proximity.
While it was initially reported the fire was created by a smart phone exploding, the Jewish news site Yeshiva World News reported that the explosion was caused by fuel combusting, even though "multiple smart phones (were) placed inside the pile to be burned."
According to eyewitnesses who spoke with the Jewish site, the community's rabbi spoke about the dangerous and corrupting effects of smart phones on the (religion), and said he would burn one, echoing his Lag B'Omer speech from last year. 
If that this event wasn’t sobering, I don’t know what will be. I believe that religious leaders of all stripes ought to be taking a 2nd look at this popular practice. It is one thing to build a small bonfire. It is an entirely different thing to build a huge one that is doused with kerosene or other highly flammable liquids in the middle of a huge crowd. That ought to stop.

But… if I had to predict the future, this custom will not only continue – but it will  increase.  Both in number and in size. The bigger the better. Spectacular fires are a sight to behold!  I suppose that this is the Charedi version of entertainment. There is little else that Charedi children in Israel are allowed to do in their off time.  Even healthy physical activity like participating is sports is forbidden in the Charedi world. 

Things like movies, TV, secular books and music are out! No internet. No computers, No smartphones. And of late, even religious concerts are frowned upon because of Taruvos (Young teenage boys and girls attending those concerts have in some cases led to socialization between the sexes.)  When there is a dearth of things young people can do in their spare time and event like this comes along - there are going to be crowds. Mixing huge bonfires with large crowds is not a good idea.

It is ironic that an admonition about the evils of smartphones prefaced this explosion. And that the community rabbi addressing this crowd put a cellphone into a bonfire with accelerents poured over it. I don’t know if there were other cellphones there. But it is not unreasonable to assume that the explosion was not caused by the accelerants alone. Batteries have been known to explode all by themselves when they over heat. If there were a lot of smartphones in that pile, it is reasonable to say that they were at least in part responsible for the explosion.

If there is another takeaway here besides re-thinking the entire enterprise of lighting huge bonfires all over the place, it is to stop obsessing about how evil smartphones are. True, they have a bad side. A really bad side! But that is known not only by the extremists of the Charedi world. The entire world knows how detrimental smartphones can be when misused. I am not going to go into details – which are beyond the scope of this post. But suffice it to say that the reason for Charedi opposition to them pales in comparison to the real problems.  

The truth is missing form their narrative. There is an obvious good side to smartphones. Their refusal to recognize the benefits is in essence lying to their people. Instead of stupidities like throwing smartphones into a fire, it would serve them a lot better to teach them responsible use of that technology. And stop treating smartphones as the direct path to an eternity in hell.