Friday, May 20, 2011

Lag BaOmer: Let's celebrate and start a fire!

It’s Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts. Today we explore the what and why of yet another Jewish Holiday.

Grab your matches and find a batch of wood! Lag BaOmer will be celebrated this weekend and it’s time to start a fire. The custom – at least in Israel – is just one of the ancient rituals that remain part of this special day.

The holiday falls on the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer; a period of joy, recalling and celebrating the victory of a Jewish warrior, Simon Bar Kosiba, aka Bar Kokhba, and his band of rebels over the might of imperial Rome. For observant Jews and most Israelis it’s a time to reflect on the sweetness of freedom and the struggle for national liberation.

It’s also a day of festivals and feasts. Across Israel – and, if the timing is right, here in the Land of Cotton and across the U.S. – families go on picnics and outings. Certain restrictions, in place during the annual Counting of the Omer, are lifted; so the holiday is a perfect time for weddings, parties, listening to music and, ah, first haircuts. Trust me, it’s a Jewish thing and much too esoteric to detail here.

So, Nor, what about the fires? I’m glad you asked. In Israel, it’s clear that Lag BaOmer is nearing when you spot children gathering wood – old doors, chairs, pieces of wood and branches. It’s a chore that takes weeks, kids creating piles of combustible stuff across their neighborhoods and cities.

As the sun sinks below the horizon, the bonfires are lit. But, ah, why? Well, the historical link has to do with Bar Kokhba and his rebels. They would light signal fires atop mountains to communicate with one another. Today, I think it’s just a fun way too let off a little, um, steam – and smoke.

BTW, the biblical mandate to count the Omer can be found in the Book of Leviticus. The Torah makes it clear that it’s a mitzvah – not a good deed, but a commandment – to count seven complete weeks, beginning the day after Passover and ending with the festival of Shavuot.

Now go out and collect some wood; then call your neighbors and warm them not to call the fire department if they smell smoke in the neighborhood.

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