By HaRav Yisrael Rosen
Dean of the Zomet Institute
Postponing Lag B’Omer
Sunday, the eighteenth of Iyar, is the date of Lag B’Omer, when we traditionally mark the date of passing of the Divine Tana Rabban Shimon Bar Yochai. This day, which is not a Torah holiday, has been privileged to achieve great significance in our calendar. In modern times it provides an opportunity for two different types of bonfire, which represent the “essence of the day” in our surroundings, as celebrated mainly by two segments of the population. One bonfire is lit at Miron by people from among the Chassidim and masters of mysticism. The other type consists of social groups and youth who participate in personal/family/group bonfires accompanied by the scent of roasting potatoes and marshmallows, greatly raising the level of smoke in the air during this night.
In our sources the day is listed as “a holiday from studies,” together with the fifteenth of Shevat and the fifteenth of Av (see Shabbat 129b). “On those days the students did not come to study in the Beit Midrash, and they would go to their teacher’s house to study. And the teachers were required to supply the students with refreshments.” [Sefer Haminhagim of the Community of Worms]. In addition, the youths go into the forests and do training exercises with bows and arrows. This is the source of the custom of holding sporting events on Lag B’Omer.
The Minister of Education, Naftali Bennett, decided this year to postpone the “holiday” to the next day, for a good reason - in order to avoid desecration of the Shabbat in the bonfires and in the subsequent “white night.” This decision is the topic which I want to discuss today, and it is but one of various postponements in our calendar out of a fear of potential Shabbat desecration. It can be viewed as an extension of the changes that are made in the dates of Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) and the Memorial Days, also in order to move them away from Shabbat and possible desecration of the holy day. The students of Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook quote him as saying that the timing of the declaration of the State of Israel took Shabbat into consideration: The declaration was made on Friday, before the beginning of Shabbat, in order to avoid the desecration, even though the formal end of the Mandate took place the next day, on Shabbat.
Is this practice of moving a holiday from one day to another a worthy idea or not? This year controversy rose even with respect to the bonfire at Miron. Should it be held right after the end of Shabbat or should it be delayed until the next evening, out of a fear of desecrating the holy day? Evidently, those in charge of the event fear that the participants might not be fully aware of the desecration that they might cause. (In addition, there is a question of the activity on Shabbat by the security and police forces, aside from fire fighters, emergency medical teams, and other public services.)
I am not Comfortable with This
In principle, I am not happy about this modern practice of moving our holidays around, in that we are allowing sinners to set the “religious” calendar, including the dates for customs, special prayers, and sanctity. Administrative moving of a school holiday for teachers and pupils does not have any religious-halachic implications, and in this case I strongly support the decision of the Minister of Education. However, to move the fire at Miron and also Yom Ha’atzmaut away from a day which has deep significance and is historically meaningful to a “nearby” alternative seems to me to be an error.
There was an article by a colleague, a worthy rabbi and educator, who wrote in favor of the postponement. As a source, he noted the dramatic ruling of our sages to prohibit blowing shofar and picking up a lulav when the holidays come out on Shabbat, due to a fear that a person “might take it to an expert for advice and will carry it in a public area on Shabbat.” My reply to this suggestion is the following: Note that the sages used their authority to cancel the mitzvot, but they did not postpone them to the next day, leading to a clear paradox. In this spirit, it would have been better to cancel the bonfires in honor of Rabban Shimon on Lag B’Omer which might lead to Shabbat desecration and the torch-lighting on Yom Ha’atzmaut close to Shabbat, rather than delaying the entire holiday for a day. Divine holidays should be observed at the proper times, “for the ways of G-d are right; the righteous follow them and sinners will stumble because of them” [Hoshaya 14:10].
I end with a “provocative point” which comes to mind by association. I have served as a judge in a conversion court for more than 20 years. A colleague, a prominent judge in this field, likes to challenge the candidates with the following question: What do you think of the suggestion that the Chief Rabbinate should move Shabbat to Sunday, in order to toe the line with the rest of the cosmopolitan world and especially with all the stock exchanges? What do you think, readers? Perhaps this is indeed a good idea!