Monday, May 15, 2017

Lag B'omer and the Rabbis: complex can be good

This is a simple story about a Jewish celebration day called, Lag B' Omer. But this is Israel. This story isn't so simple. 

Lag B' Omer, falls out this week. It occurs only one day a year, between the holidays of Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Pentecost). It occurs exactly 33 days after the first day of Pesach, whenever that occurs. 

That's the simple part. Here's where it gets complicated.

Each of the following 4 statements is true: 

-Yesterday (May 14, 2017) was Lag B' Omer. No, it wasn't.

-Today (May 15, 2017) is Lag B' Omer. No it isn't.

Now--answer this question: When was Lag B'omer--yesterday or today?   

The correct answer is, both days are Lag B'omer. But only in Israel--and, possibly, only this year. Maybe.

Let's begin to explain this conundrum with a brief explanation of the day called, Lag B'Omer. Oh, wait. I forgot. This is Israel. Nothing is brief.

If you thought making peace in the Middle East was complicated, wait until you see what happened to Lag B'  Omer this year.

To explain the name, Lag B'Omer, we have to start first with a Hebrew language lesson. Unlike English, Hebrew doesn't have separate symbols for letters and numbers. In Hebrew, the letters of the alphabet are the numbers. 

Put another way, Hebrew expresses numbers using its alphabet. Each letter of the Hebrew alphabet corresponds to a number. 

Using English to illustrate this feature, the letter 'A' would be '1', 'B' would be '2', 'C' would be '3', etc. 'K', the eleventh letter, would not be eleven, but '20'; 'L' would be '30', etc. Other letters deeper into the alphabet account for higher numbers. 

Again, using English to illustrate how numbering works, the number 33 would be 'LC' ('L' is '30', 'C' is '3').

In Hebrew (using English letters that actually correspond to the sound of a Hebrew number), the number 33 would be 'LG'  that is, in Hebrew, the third letter of the alphabet isn't 'C', it's a hard 'G' (as in the word 'good'). Therefore, the two Hebrew letters representing 33 would be 'LG'.

There's more: this number, represented by the Hebrew version of 'LG', can be pronounced as a word. Your choices for converting LG to a spoken word are limited to the vowels, available: A-E-I-O-U. Your choices are LAG, LEG, LIG, LOG or LUG. 

The Hebrew language, for its own linguistic reasons, has chosen to pronounce the number 33 as, 'LAG'. So whatever the letters B-O-m-e-r might mean, the 'LAG' of 'Lag B'Omer' means 33.

In Hebrew, the 'B' of 'B'Omer' is a prefix. It most commonly means 'of' or 'in', depending upon context. In this context, the 'B' means, 'of'. Therefore, 'Lag B' means '33 of'.

The Hebrew word, 'Omer' comes from the Torah. We actually read about this 'Omer' just this past Shabbat (not a coincidence) in the Parsha, Emor (Vayikra; 21:1-24:23). Simply put, 'Omer' (in this discussion) refers to the counting of the 49 days between the 2nd day of Pesach and the day of Shavuot. Therefore, Lag B'Omer means, '33 of Omer'--or, more comfortably, 'the 33rd day of the Omer'.

For the last 1800+ years, the 49-day Omer period has been associated with a great Jewish tragedy: the death of 24,000 students of the great Rabbi Akiva. Jewish tradition teaches that these 24,000 died by some kind of plague during the Omer period--and the dying stopped on the 33rd day of the Omer. 

Therefore, on Lag B'Omer we celebrate a great good that occurred. The deaths of those students had stopped.

As with all Jewish holidays, Lag B'Omer has its traditions. Possibly the single greatest tradition of Lag B'Omer, at least here in Israel, appears to be the bonfire. 

A common definition for the word, 'bonfire' is a large open-air fire used for entertainment or celebration. That's exactly what happens here in Israel, where Lag B'Omer bonfires are really, really big.

Here are a couple of pictures of bonfires here in  our city, Maale Adumim (the pics might be of the same bonfire):

(These two photos are posted with written permission from the photographer, Jacob Richman, from Written permission rec'd May 15, 2017)


For weeks leading up to Lag B'Omer, teens and almost-teens all across Israel busy themselves 'borrowing' shopping carts from local supermarkets. They use those carts to scavenge wood from homes, garbage day pickup points and local shops. Wood pallets are a favorite. Wood from trees are good--but in the desert where I live, difficult to find. Broken or old lumber, old interior doors, broken/old wood furniture are all collected and saved for the evening before the 33rd day of the Omer. 

Then, starting perhaps two hour before sunset--after which the 33rd day of the Omer begins--the boys--these wood-collectors seem mostly to be boys--rush out to their collection-points to drag their wood to what appears to be predesignated burn-locations. Once the wood is at the proper location, the boys get busy building some pretty impressive fire-structures. Some of them reach 5 feet in height.

The problem with Lag B'Omer this year was that it fell on Sunday. That meant the bonfires would be lit Saturday night. Saturday until dark is Shabbat. Starting fires, dragging wood and building a bonfire structure all all forbidden on Shabbat day. 

To address the potential of people desecrating the Shabbat day over their eagerness to get the bonfires ready (by starting their bonfire-related work before the Shabbat had ended), Israel's Rabbis reminded everyone there should be no bonfire preparations started until after Shabbat had ended, which this year was after 8 pm. 

Then, it appears, they changed their collective mind. Clearly, they understood that, teens being teens, bonfire-temptation on Lag B'Omer is simply too overwhelming to resist. Saturday night bonfires would probably mean a general Shabbat-desecration as teens rushed during daylight hours to set up their fire structures.  

So, close to the last minute, Israel's Rabbis announced that Lag B'Omer bonfires would be on Sunday night, not Saturday night.

This created confusion. If you couldn't light your bonfire on Saturday night, did that mean Lag B'Omer would only be celebrated Sunday night? 

It created more confusion: schools in Israel are supposed to be closed on Lag B' Omer day. Apparently, Israeli teens couldn't be asked to stay up late burning wood the night before only to have to get up early the next morning to go to school. So if the bonfires were to be Sunday night, when would schools be closed, Sunday or Monday--or according to some smart teenagers, both Sunday and Monday?

That, in turn, raised a confusing question: when was Lag B'Omer--Sunday or Monday--or, according to some smart adults, both Sunday and Monday?

The answers to these questions was simple. On a religious scale, Lag B'Omer was Sunday. On the bonfire and school scales, Monday. So, depending on whom you asked, Lag B'Omer was Sunday---or, no it wasn't. Or, it was Monday--or, no it wasn't.

From what I could see, such a decision had an interesting but, I think, unintended consequence: there were some bonfires Saturday night, some Sunday night. Naturally, Israelis--especially teens--took advantage of this Rabbinic decision, and turned any confusion created by it into an opportunity. They lit bonfires both nights. 

In the end, I think the Rabbis won. I think they might have hit a 'home run' here--for safety reasons. 

In Israel, Lag B'Omer falls in Israel's summer season. There has been virtually no rain in many parts of Israel for over a month. Open spaces here often have parched grasses--currently tinder for an errant spark. Unanticipated fires started by a spark can--and too often do--get out of hand. 

By creating what looked like confusion, the Rabbis actually did Israel's fire-fighting forces a favor. By creating a situation where the total number of fires ended up getting divided mostly between two nights, instead of being concentrated into a single night, fire-fighters weren't as pressured by accidental fires. They had more time to fight unanticipated, accidental fires--and to put out unauthorized fires.

An unauthorized bonfire is one lit in areas which a municipality--such as ours--has declared to be too dangerous for a fir--that is, too prone to start a forest or ground fire that could spread like, well, wild-fire. 

My wife saw from our porch how one of these unauthorized fires was handled here in our city. First, she noticed a bonfire in what looked like an unauthorized area (although our porch was perhaps 800 yards from that spot, she understood, even in the dark--she knows the terrain here--that it didn't seem like a smart place to start a fire). Almost immediately upon seeing the fire, she saw police cars arrive at that spot. Then, a fire truck arrived. Then a long arc of either water or fire-retardant shot from the truck directly onto the bonfire. The bonfire went out in seconds. 

It's much easier to cover such unauthorized fires when there are fewer bonfires burning in the first place. 

The Rabbis' last-minute (or, what seemed to me to be a last minute) decision to identify Sunday night for bonfires gave Israel a blessing. From what I could see, there were far, far fewer accidental fires reported this year than last. That meant far fewer dunam (a dunam is 1/4 an acre) in Israel were destroyed by fire this Lag B'Omer.

Thank G-d for the Rabbis. 

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