April 26, 2010
Trying to set the ‘lag’ on fire
There’s nothing like a Jewish holiday where you get to set something on fire.
Usually it’s a candle, but on Lag B’Omer you can light a bonfire. You can even use the fire to light up your mind.
The fire is lit every year on the 33rd day of the counting of the omer, which this year is observed from the sunset of May 1 to the nightfall of May 2.
Lag B’Omer marks the ending of a plague during the Bar Kochba revolt in the second century CE. According to tradition, students and soldiers were dying and the plague ended on that day. “Lag” literally means 33. The Hebrew letter lamed (the “L” sound) carries the numerical value of 30; the gimmel (the “G” sound) the value of 3.
Though a minor holiday between Passover and Shavuot, Lag B’Omer is important as a day of relaxation and outdoor recreation during the otherwise traditional mourning period of the omer.
Lag B’Omer comes as a break in a time of year that for many is filled with anxiety and anticipation—after you have suffered through doing your taxes and after those college acceptance/rejection letters have arrived. Hint: Use the rejection letters to start the fire, then use the flames to read the ones of acceptance.
The fire’s flames are said to represent the kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai, a disciple of Rabbi Akiva, who many think brought light to the world by his authoring of the Zohar (Radiance).
Bar Yochai’s yahrzeit is observed on Lag B’Omer, and his tomb, located on Mount Meron, is not far from Safed, a small town in northern Israel that for many centuries has been a center of kabbalistic thought. On Lag B’Omer, many flock to the site to ask for his “next worldly” intercession on matters of health and peace.
Last Lag B’Omer, reeling from the death of a parent, I needed to recover a spark of my own radiance, so I lit a fire in the backyard. A bit of urban camping, sitting by the fire was quieting in a way that was unexpected. Amid a city of millions, I found the experience to be meditative.
This year I am going to make good use of those flames and sparks: I am planning a night full of fire to open my eyes to masters and mystics, and their mishegas. Shavuot, the time of receiving the Torah, is coming soon, and I am hoping some fireside reading will help me to prepare.
The Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers (2:8), tells us, “Warm yourself by the fire of the sages.” So to warm my thoughts, that night I am pulling together a few Jewish books to read by the fire.
Jewish books seem to have their own Law of Accumulation. Friends recommend them, even drop them by. Intriguing titles speak to you from sales tables and book signings. Kids go to college and bring even more home.
They accumulate first into low piles, then stacks, then a single skyscraper, then a veritable downtown of books. And then comes the realization: I haven’t opened a single one. Where is the time? Each book has a flame of its own, and opening them first by firelight should be a fine way to grow the glow.
A week before the holiday, I found the time to test my plan. I built a bonfire, sat down and read.
The first book I pulled off the pile was “Tales in Praise of the Ari,” with drawings by Moshe Raviv. “The Ari” is Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, who long before the Big Bang theory gave us the mystical concept of “ein sof,” “without ending,” “the infinite No-thingness.” It’s a translation of a small book of legendary deeds taken from his life called “Sefer Shivchai Ha-Ari.” It was a good read for flame and shadow, though I had to keep getting up to add more wood just as I came to the good parts.
“The Book of Legends,” “Sefer Ha-Aggadah,” which has been collecting dust here for an epoch, also will be part of my fireside reading. The book is a selection of haggadic—that is, non-legal portions of the Talmud. Compiled by the Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik and editor Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky in the first decade of the 20th century, it includes parables, proverbs, and folklore. By flame light, I discovered, the book is cross indexed. I looked under “fire” and found myself with “angels,” and “Abraham.”
I also want to see how the fire will play off the black-and-white pages of a graphic novel that I have been saving, “The Jew of New York,” by cartoonist Ben Katchor. By the fire I will be introduced to the members of Katchor’s cartoon universe: a disgraced kosher slaughterer, an importer of religious articles and women’s hosiery, a latter day kabbalist and a man in an India rubber suit. The comic heat let me take off my jacket.
The rest of the reading world has finished the prequel of Maggie Anton’s series of “Rashi’s Daughter” series. By the fire I will open “Book One: Joheved.” It’s about the eldest of the Torah and Talmud commentator’s three daughters, which is tagged as a “Novel of Life, Love and Talmud in Medieval France.” That night I finished the first chapter, filled with imagined demons, a fireplace and a very real father. Some real light is going to be shed.
Don’t have a fire pit or fireplace? Not to worry; try reading that night by candlelight. Lag B’Omer has no requirement for flame size and, as you read, perhaps the “fire” will grow.
(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles.)