“Esh, Esh Medura” (Fire, Fire, Bonfire)

by Einat Kramer, Director – Teva Ivri

One of the most “Israeli” phenomena that I know is the bonfires of Lag B’Omer. Immediately after Pesach, even before the

clean spring scent fades in the heat of the summer, the streets of our country are filled with children looking for firewood. They are everywhere; in forests, building sites, and among the garbage cans, they collect wood (or anything resembling wood), hauling it off in “borrowed” supermarket carts to their secret hiding place and guarding it fiercely until the holiday.

Shortly after Independence Day, the energy of the firewood hunt goes up a notch. At this point, you can see parents recruited, often against their will, to the work of collecting. This tends to widen the scope of firewood supply to include natural woodlands and national parks. Often, healthy live trees pay the price of this frenzy.

On the eve of Lag B’Omer, starting in the morning hours, children and their parents begin the careful labor of building the bonfire. Boards, broken furniture, cartons, branches, and other items of unidentifiable origin, are piled up high, with an effigy of the “bad guy” at the very top. (In my family we burn an effigy of Haman, but I have seen a variety of other certifiable bad guys perched on top of bonfires.) With nightfall, the ecstasy peaks as gallons of lighter fluid are poured onto the wood piles, sending flames into the sky. The congregation of rosy-cheeked children accompanies the blaze with patriotic hymns and other heartfelt songs…

OK, enough with the satire…

Not everyone remembers the reason for the big party – it is the day on which, according to tradition, the Bar Kochva rebellion began to look good for the Jewish warriors (despite their ultimate failure). The plague that killed Rabbi Akiva’s students finally ended, and great spiritual secrets were revealed to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on his deathbed. All of these are celebrated together with an evening of bonfires, baked potatoes, and marshmallows.

Another thing that people tend to forget is the damage caused by the above-described festivities. Lag B’Omer is a day on which the levels of air pollution in our small country rise exponentially; due to the burning of processed and/or fabricated wood products, the air is filled with carcinogenic particles (dioxins). The morning after, abandoned fires often spread into surrounding fields and forests. Never mind the mountains of trash left in the area long after the smoke clears…

These phenomena have led various well-intentioned environmental agencies to call for banning the custom of lighting Lag B’Omer bonfires altogether. I do not support this view. In my opinion, it is fine to connect one day of the year to the element of fire that is within us and to the wonders of sitting around a fire – especially when relating to a tradition that apparently dates back to the 1300’s. And especially when it is relatively easy to reduce the environmental damages and still celebrate with song and joy.

Tips for a (Relatively) Environmentally-Friendly Bonfire:

Small is Beautiful – Who said we have to build giant bonfires? A small bonfire creates an intimate atmosphere, requires less wood, and creates less pollution.

Make New Friends – Instead of making a separate fire for each little “clique” of friends, build one for each class, grade level, or neighborhood block. This conserves wood, expands social circles, and builds community.

Respect Nature – The burning of plastic, tires, fabricated wood, and processed wood releases carcinogenic dioxins into the air. Take care to burn only natural wood, not painted furniture or treated plywood. And of course, leave the live branches on the live trees! your bonfire

Safety First – Be sure to bring enough water to extinguish your bonfire completely at the end of the night. This prevents unwanted wildfires.

Leave No Trace – The remains of food, plastic, and other garbage left outside present not only an eyesore to people, but also a danger to local wildlife. Wild animals can choke on plastic bags as they try to extract food scraps from them, cut themselves on sharp cans, and become sick from ingesting food cooked in poisonous wood fires. Clean up your bonfire area! Send an additional clean-up crew in the morning to verify in the daylight that the area is clean.

What else? Invite to your bonfire the person you don’t know well and never invite anywhere (yes, another connection between Environment and Society…); avoid using disposable utensils; avoid excess meat consumption, and…remember the teachings of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai!

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