Lag B'Omer bonfire
Lag B'Omer bonfire Israel news photo by Hillel Meir

Rabbis and environmentalists are urging Jews to focus on the meaning of Lag B’Omer instead of the dangerous bonfires that cause pollution. The holiday begins after sundown Wednesday.

All-night bonfires are popular, especially among youth, but the forecast of dry and hot weather creates a danger of sparks setting off forest fires, especially in the area of Meron, near Tzfat in the upper Galilee.

Meron is the burial site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who was known for his mystical insights into the Torah and who died on Lag B’Omer. The “Rashbi,” as he is known, told his students that Lag B’Omer should be celebrated to commemorate mystical teachings.

"We tend to see people getting caught up in the details instead of what really matters, and turning visits to tombs into the main event while at the same time continuing to do wrong,” Rabbi Ratzon Amrousi told Arutz Sheva.

“We need to remember his teachings, which were based on ‘love your fellow man as yourself,’ love between people and between man and G-d,” he added.

The fires are supposed to be a reminder of the spiritual light revealed by the Rashbi. On the day of his death, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said, "Now it is my desire to reveal secrets... The day will not go to its place like any other, for this entire day stands within my domain."  

The bonfires also represent signal fires that the Bar Kochba rebels lit on the mountaintops to relay messages and are in memory of his revolt against the Romans, who had forbidden the kindling of fires that were a sign of the beginning of Jewish holidays.

More than 300,000 people usually visit Meron on Lag B’Omer Wednesday night and Thursday. All roads to the area will be closed to private cars of non-residents from 7 p.m. The town will be closed to all traffic Wednesday morning.

The Egged bus system is deploying hundreds of buses to transport people to Meron from 11 p.m. Wednesday night until 10 p.m. the following night.

The term “Lag B’Omer" refers to the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, “Lag” being the combination of two Hebrew letters whose numerical equivalent is 33.

“Omer” refers to a measure of grain. An offering that included an omer of the new barley harvest was brought to the Temple on the first day of Passover, and from that day on, the new grain was permissible as food. The Jews were commanded (Leviticus 23) to count verbally 49 days, seven full weeks, from the night following the barley offering. The last day of the counting is one day before the holiday of Shavuot (Pentecost) on which day the first offering made from the new wheat harvest was brought to the Temple in the form of two loaves.

The Counting of the Omer each year has a deeper meaning. It is a reminder of the spiritual route the Israelites ascended from slavery in Egypt to the foot of Mount Sinai in order to receive the Torah on Shavuot. The offering, too, ascends from barley, used mainly for cattle, to wheat, used for human consumption.

Another significance of Lag B’Omer is that it is the day on which a plague ended after killing 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva because they did not show proper respect to each other. Tradition states that after the death of his students, Rabbi Akiva taught only five disciples, one of them being Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

The period of the counting of the Omer is also a time of partial morning, which is lifted on Lag Omer, when it is permissible to marry and to listen to music. Haircuts also are common the day following 32 days of not shaving, and many parents do not cut the hair of their children until Lag ‘Omer after the children reach the age of three.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, encouraged Lag B'Omer parades to be held in Jewish communities around the world as a demonstration of Jewish unity.