By Shmuel Katz
With Lag B’Omer coming up this motzaei Shabbat, our kids are spending much of their free time avidly hunting for firewood. Throughout the country, religious and non-religious youth alike celebrate Lag B’Omer with a bonfire. Be it for an hour or an entire night, sitting around that bonfire with your friends is an essential part of an Israeli child’s youth.
It is at this time of year that the e‑mail lists are filled with postings asking for people’s s’chach boards to be returned, and one can hardly turn the corner without seeing several kids schlepping a whole bunch of branches, boards, pallets, or whatever other wood they can find to their designated collection spot. (Our Mordechai is one of the kids in charge of collection for his age group in Bnei Akiva this year.) The “lucky” kids whose fathers work in something related to construction are very popular at this time of year, especially when Dad hauls a truck of leftover wood for his son or daughter to contribute.
Many Israeli families will pack everyone up and find some isolated spot to make a family bonfire. They bring food, music, chairs, etc. and have a fun night out with their kids and grandkids. Our block (and several others in Bet Shemesh) makes a special kids’ bonfire during the afternoon, while it is still light out. The little kids get to participate, making hot dogs, toasted marshmallows, and all manner of other treats, while they get to bed at a decent hour. The parents get to hang out together and be a part of the fun, while also getting to bed at a decent hour.
This year, as with the other years in which Lag B’Omer falls out on motzaei Shabbat, we will have different forms of observing this minhag. The chareidi public, sticking to the actual date of Lag B’Omer, will have bonfires immediately following the end of Shabbat. Rather than make a bunch of little bonfires, they will generally band together in large groups and make huge bonfires. Those are pretty impressive.
Much of the rest of the public will wait until Sunday afternoon or evening to do their bonfires. This is actually done in accordance with a decision by the Rabbanut of Israel and runs consistently not only for Lag B’Omer, but also for Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron (all three of which come out on the same day of the week). Concern about potential chillul Shabbat led to the Rabbanut’s postponement (by one day) of the public celebrations tied to all three dates.
By making Yemei HaShoah and HaZikaron on Sunday night instead of motzaei Shabbat, work done to set up lights, sound systems, etc. in support of the public ceremonies can be done on Sunday instead of on Shabbat. And by requesting that no one make bonfires on motzaei Shabbat, they prevent those youth (or families) who want to get an early start from lighting up on Shabbat itself.
Places like Bet Shemesh that have multiple demographic populations will therefore have the dubious distinction of having two full nights of local fires. I say dubious because the city will stink like smoke for a week and everyone has to keep their windows closed. An open window (we had one once) results in the entire house reeking of smoke.
The smoke is incredibly dense at times. In fact, there are only two days a year in which the air quality is reported by the press. The first is Yom Kippur. With no cars on the road and everyone in shul, the air quality shoots up for the day to unbelievable levels. The other day is Lag B’Omer—there is so much smoke covering the country that it is the worst pollution day of the year by far. v
Shmuel Katz is the executive director of Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah (www.migdalhatorah.org), a new gap-year yeshiva. Shmuel, his wife Goldie, and their six children made aliyah in July of 2006. Before making aliyah, he was the executive director of the Yeshiva of South Shore in Hewlett. You can contact him at email@example.com.