Daily Israel Report

Education Ministry: 'Don't Start Bonfires on Saturday'

The Rabbinate and Education Ministry asked Israelis not to prepare for the Lag BaOmer bonfires on Saturday so as not to desecrate the Sabbath.
By Hana Levi Julian
First Publish: 4/29/2010, 2:07 PM / Last Update: 4/29/2010, 2:23 PM

Flash 90

The Rabbinate and the Ministry of Education have asked the nation's schools not to begin preparations for the traditional Lag BaOmer bonfires on Saturday afternoon, in order to avoid desecrating the Sabbath. Lag BaOmer falls on the 33rd day of the period between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks.

The Jewish holiday commemorates the end of an epidemic that killed thousands of students of Rabbi Akiva, and the passing of his student, the renowned Second Temple-era sage and Kabbalist Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who wrote the mystical work, the Zohar. This year the holiday begins after sundown on Saturday night. Children have been busily collecting scrap wood around their neighborhoods for weeks, and in the past several days, have started schlepping the bits of timber to the site where "their" bonfire is expected to be lit for the holiday.

Hoping to head off a blaze of trouble over Sabbath desecration, Ministry director-general Dr. Shimshon Shoshani sent a letter to the regional education directors, warning that “the Rabbinate has brought to our attention the numerous complaints that were received by the Chief Rabbi. The complaints are coming from parents who are of a traditional or religious mind-set, whose children have been invited to participate in their schools' Lag BaOmer bonfires, and that are beginning preparations on the Sabbath,” Shoshani wrote. “We are asking you to please ensure that your schools do not desecrate the Sabbath in their preparations for the holiday,” he added.

In an interview with Arutz Sheva's Hebrew news service, Rabbi Dr. Ratzon Arusi, a member of the Chief Rabbinical Council and the rabbi of Kiryat Ono, similarly called on the public to delay lighting their holiday bonfires until Sunday. “There is a concern about the desecration of the Sabbath, especially at Meron,” he noted, “where thousands of security officers and other personnel are deploying on the Sabbath in order to secure the site. This is absolutely forbidden [under Jewish law].”

The tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is located in the Galilee village of Meron.

Arusi explained that the lighting of the bonfires has a sacred purpose, which is destroyed if one desecrates the Sabbath while carrying it out. “The entire point of lighting a bonfire originates with the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, at which point the mystical light of the Kabbalistic Book of the Zohar was instantly revealed,” the rabbi said. “Ashkenazi Jews have transformed that incident into a day of joy because that same day also brought to an end the deaths of thousands of students of Rabbi Akiva... But we must remember that at first the practice was to light candles, then it became torches and bonfires.,” he added.

“Anyone who goes to light a fire in Meron on Saturday even though he is not supposed to will be desecrating the Sabbath,” the rabbi warned.

On Sunday, hundreds of little boys ages 2 and 3 will be brought to Meron for their first haircut, a Hassidic custom. In communities across the rest of the countries, Chabad-Lubavitch Hassidim will lead Lag BaOmer parades featuring Jewish children marching with their classmates. Magen David Adom will be on special alert as well; Lag BaOmer is also a day in which families traditionally indulge in picnic barbecues, called “mahngal'” in Hebrew.