Reclaiming Lag Ba'Omer

There is no halakhic significance to lighting bonfires, but there are strong halakhic injunctions to protect the environment.

Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth ,

Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth
Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth
צילום: עצמי

Can Israeli society learn from American Jewry by stopping the destructive tradition of Lag Ba'Omer bonfires and lighting candles instead? Perhaps Coronavirus will spur us to reject this minhag.

From a very young age, Lag Ba'Omer in Israel was one of my favorite days of the year. Some of my best youth memories are of collecting firewood from a month before Lag Ba'Omer, competing to build the biggest bonfire, and then singing and playing around the fire with my best friends from dusk ‘til dawn. Even the smell of smoke the morning after, following hundreds of bonfires all around the city, is an unforgettable memory. I never questioned this custom and tradition because I was very fond of it.

Many years later, when I went on Shlichut to the US, I discovered that there is another option for celebrating Lag Ba'Omer. To be honest, it was a cultural shock for me to realize that bonfires in the US are illegal and require special police approval. I was disappointed and even frustrated by our inability to celebrate Lag Ba'Omer the way I used to.

Today, from a more mature perspective, I’m very pleased that no bonfires will be lit in Israel on Lag Ba'Omer 2020, and perhaps this is one of the positive ramifications of the Coronavirus. Leaving aside the fire hazards to which many young children are exposed, the environmental damage which tens of thousands of bonfires cause every year is simply outrageous. This is not merely a “Green agenda” but rather an authentic Jewish and Halakhic requirement.

To begin with, the source of the bonfire tradition relates to lighting candles and torches around the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, as the Arukh HaShulchan explains: “This day is named Hilulla de’Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, and the tradition in Eretz Yisrael is to add special prayers and light candles on his holy grave” (Orach Chaim 493:7). There is no halakhic source or significance to lighting bonfires, but there are strong halakhic injunctions to protect the environment and to prevent damage and pollution. One of many examples in the prohibition to build kilns in Jerusalem, “due to the unsightly smoke [produced by kilns]” (Baba Kama 82b)


One of many examples in the prohibition to build kilns in Jerusalem, “due to the unsightly smoke [produced by kilns]” (Baba Kama 82b).
The well-known Midrash on Kohelet articulates that message, based on the following verse: “Consider God’s doing! Who can straighten what He has twisted?” This is how the Sages interpreted it: “When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, G-d 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 HaChinuch (529) explains that this is the rationale behind the commandment of ‘Bal Tashchit’ - ‘do not destroy’, namely to protect all of creation, as this is the role of humankind. “The root of this commandment is to teach our souls to love good and benefit and to cling to it…And this is the way of the pious…they love peace and are happy for the good of the creatures...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 with all of their strength.”

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch further explains that when mankind abuses nature, Hashem will cause nature to take its revenge: “Bal Tashchit is the first and most general call of G-d, 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 G-d Who created them, and therefore desire that they feel the might of your presumptuous mood...then G-d’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!” (Horev p. 80)


When the smallest unseen creation becomes the worst enemy of humanity, it requires a reassessment of our attitude to nature.
Surely the global Corona crisis that the world is facing now is nothing but a wake-up call from G-d, as Rabbi Hirsch concludes: “This is what G-d calls to you. With this call does G-d 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 to nature.

Perhaps the growing awareness and demand to protect the environment in our generation has 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 ‘Atchalta DiGe’ulah’ (the beginning of redemption) and Tikkun Olam.

One of the ramifications of Adam’s sin was G-d’s curse: “Cursed be the ground because of you. Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you.” 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 HaKodesh 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 of '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 with it. We cannot judge the moral demands of society in our time as disconnected from the process of ‘Atchalta DiGe’ulah’ and the processes of Tikkun Olam that are underway.

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 'Atchalta DiGe’ulah'.Does this mean that every activity undertaken by these movements is appropriate, correct, or justified? Of course not! Does it mean that when the Halakhah seems wrong to us we should oppose or annul it? 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.


According to Rav Kook, one of the characteristics of the generation of 'the beginning of redemption', is this growing moral sensitivity.
Will these words be widely heard and followed? Can Israeli society learn from American Jewry by stopping the destructive tradition of Lag Ba'Omer bonfires and lighting candles instead? I can only hope so. 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 and light candles in memory of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

Rav 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”, published in May by Urim Publications.




top