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Lag B’Omer: what are we burning?

May 7, 2015 – 11:32 am2 Comments

By Annie Zeleznikow:

My favourite Lag B’Omer took placebonfire 2 Israel, on my shnat year. We were still on Machon, the Institution that combines four Australian youth movements with their counterparts from around the world.

There was a garden a few hundred metres away from Machon that 10 of us would tend. Each Thursday afternoon we would plant vegetables and fruit, and look after the trees. We thought we were real chlutnikim. It was a task that we took great pride in. I felt I was actively contributing to Israeli society—the most any visiting Zionist can hope for.

On the eve of this chag, on the 17th of Iyar, us 10 Zionist gardeners encountered a collection of woodpiles on our way to work. There wasn’t just one pile for the community to enjoy, there were dozens. Every few metres there was a stack of wood. If I hadn’t known better I would have thought they were the intended sites of ritual sacrifice.

Heading home as the sun was setting, all along the hills of Jerusalem there were fires. Each family had their own little party.

This array of fires was alien to me, scary and strange. It was difficult for me to grasp what sort of cultural events led to that specific form of celebration, to all those individual fires.

In Melbourne, my hometown, Mizrachi always has a nice big celebration, fairy floss and hot dogs and fun-fair style rides. There is also a singular bon fire in the courtyard of the shule. The bonfire, a friend once quipped, is “Bnei Akiva burning the words of bnei Akiva.”

Lag B’omer falls on the 33rd day of the Omer. The Omer is a 49 day count down from Pessach to Shavuot in which no celebrations should take place. During the Omer 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died. His students treated each other with such disrespect that they were plagued. And it was on Lag B’Omer that they stopped dying—so naturally we celebrate. Only five of Rabbi Akiva’s students were saved, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai the most remembered.

Watching all those separate fires I found myself laughing at the irony. There was bitter debate in Israel at the time. Later that year, ground troops would invade Gaza. How could the Jewish people prevent history from repeating itself, how could we prevent the plague that killed most of Rabbi Akiva’s students from happening again?

Lag B’Omer celebrates overcoming death and personal difference to help us understand how we can better the world. That evening I saw all the differences between the people of Israel, instead of their similarities. But as I sat near the garden I worked so hard to preserve, my view began to change.

I was able to see that we were all celebrating the same thing: the triumph of the Jewish people (again) over odds that we thought would overwhelm us (again). Although most of Rabbi Akiva’s students died, we still have the ability to study today. And each year the Zionist youth movements send their chanichim to Israel to learn, just like those five students who survived were able to continue learning, and spreading Jewish thought.

Watching the fires I was reminded of how the Jewish people communicated at the time of Rabbi Akiva. We used fires on mountaintops to signify the new month. And to me those fires seemed like new hope. I saw them and I felt a deeper connection not only with those Jews now, sharing the experience of fire watching, but I felt connected to my biblical brethren, who too, would stand by the fire.

Annie Zeleznikow is a madricha with Hineni Melbourne.

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  • Ron Burdo says:

    Being an ex-Israeli and growing up in a secular environment there, I can tell that most Israelis, although so enthusiastic about their Lag Ba’Omer bonfires, are not interested in commemorating Rabbi Akiva or Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. I doubt whether most of them know who these sages were.

    Moreover, if they knew that Lag Ba’Omer commemorates Yeshiva students and Rabbis, two groups of people detested by many secular Israelis, they would not celebrate it at all.

    So why do Israelis celebrate Lag Ba’Omer so enthusiastically?

    Lag Ba’Omer, just as Hanukkah, was promoted by Zionist youth movements, from both left and right, since it was identified with the Bar Kochva rebellion, Jewish independence in Eretz Israel, heroism and fighting. In addition, the custom to celebrate outdoors with bonfires fitted the idea of creating “a new Jew”, who is rough, brave and connected with nature – an idea which was influenced by German Romanticism. For both of the above, the Lag Ba’Omer bonfires became very popular in Israel in its early years, and remained as such, even after the glamour of heroism and Zionism (at least among secular Israelis) has faded.

    What was left of that in 2015, is just an excuse to stay outdoors into the night, eat a lot, drink alcohol (underage drinking is not really enforced in Israel), and generate a lot of smoke and air pollution. Nothing about connection with Jewish history.

  • Jonny says:

    Great article and great comment Ron… As an old Hashy boy with an orthodox upbringing who’s daughter now goes to Hineni and son now goes to Betar… I think it’s the whole point of Jewish life that we can all experience the same rituals and attach the meaning that is most important for ourselves. It is the discussion of meaning that is the spiritual aspect as opposed to the fun or the dogma. Why are we doing this again? It’s the whole point. And as per the article, and your reply, respectful dialogue to end plagues of disrespect and entrenched courage to resist oppression sit hand in hand to form a meaningful experience for all. And then the drinking and the hot dogs kick in!!

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