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Q&A: Lag Baomer Until Shavu’oth

May 22, 2014

Question: What should I do on Lag Ba’omer? Should I make a bonfire or go to Meron?

Answer: I do not recommend either. Too many bonfires are dangerous and destructive, and are certainly not what any of the sages, including Rashbi, would have wanted you to do. There is no halachic or talmudic precedence for observing any holiday or quasi-holiday with a bonfire. As for going to Meron, I bemoan the fact that places like Meron and Uman are the focus of mass pilgrimages. The Torah commanded us to make mass pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem, and history has earlier examples of places that although they were not centers of idolatry, they did act as rivals to the true center of the worship of the Supreme God: the Temple of Onias in Heliopolis, and Jeroboam’s shrines in Beth-El and Dan.

I would also like to warn unsuspecting individuals about a hazard that is present in Meron, and infiltrates synagogues on a regular basis. The Mosdot Rashbi organization uses Rashbi’s name to create a fictional version of the great tanna. They have even created imaginary images of him. They make wild promises to those who give their money to their organization, including all sorts of “salvations” that they can not possibly deliver. Rashbi was a great rabbi; it is a shame that his name has been hijacked by charlatans. (I would consider someone who makes a promise of salvation in the name of an ancient sage to be a neo-paganist.)

(UPDATE, 23 Tishrei 5778: The following is the source for the above. Here, Rabbi Yival Sherlow warns of this phenomenon.)

ואת הצורך להתחבר לחוויות מוחשיות וגשמיות מסביר הרב יובל שרלו, ראש ישיבת ההסדר ‘אורות שאול’ וחבר בארגון רבני ‘צוהר’: “מירון, כמו אומן וכמו הכותל המערבי בזמנים מסוימים בשנה, ממלאים חלל שהוא תוצאה של מהפכה שעברה היהדות מחורבן בית המקדש, שבו היה מגע עם משהו חומרי, לתפילות בבית המדרש, שנעדרות את האלמנט המוחשי. ההילולה במירון מעניקה למאמינים אפשרות למלא את החלל הזה שנפער ואי אפשר להתעלם מכך. מנגד, הגבול שבין בית המקדש והחומר לבין עבודה זרה הוא דק מאוד, ולכן יש החוששים שבמירון הגבול הדק הזה נפרץ, ואני באופן אישי מאוד מזדהה עם החשש הזה. אני מאוד לא רוצה לשפוך את התינוק עם המים ולאבד את ההילה שמירון מעניקה למאמינים, אבל אני לא יכול להתעלם מהניצול הציני והמכוער שבא לביטוי במעשי עוולה של כאלה המבטיחים ישועות ונסים, תוך ניצול אמונתם ותמימותם של המאמינים. ולכן תפקידם של התומכים בחגיגות הוא להוות את ראש החץ במניעת המעשים הללו והעוולות שנעשים שם, בפרט בימי ל”ג בעומר”.)

Question: What about haircuts?

Answer: With regard to the three weeks from 17 Tammuz until 9 Av, the old exilic custom of not cutting one’s hair during the entire duration of the non-hazal -ordained mourning period was long ago done away with by the Vilna Gaon, who taught us that every single Friday of the year, with the exception of Hol Hamoed and Yom Tov, there is a commandment of the Torah to honor the Sabbath by preparing for it, including with regards to cutting the hair of one’s head and beard (which are halachically the same), and thus, even during Sefira and the three weeks one may cut his hair or trim his beard, just like he may cut his nails, shower, and don clean clothes. From what I recall, the Rabbis at RIETS and RSA always mentioned that one could, for example, shave on every Friday during Sefira.  Thankfully, we have come a long way from the times, still remembered by the Aroch Hashulhan, when all of these restrictions were observed, and during the Nine Days, for instance, they did not honor the Sabbath by bathing on Friday or by wearing their “Shabbos clothes.” If for whatever reason one still chooses to follow the medieval, questionable practice, he should finally cut his hair on Lag Ba’omer. If Lag Ba’omer is Sunday, he should cut his hair on the Friday before that, as waiting for Sunday to cut one’s hair is a blatant slight to the honor and holiness of the Sabbath.

Question: Are there times that a couple may not marry during Sefira?

Answer: The practice to prohibit weddings until Lag Baomer is mentioned in all of the standard halacha books, BUT in the older works that first mention the practice, the prohibition is limited to second marriages and the like, i.e., for individuals who have yet to fulfill their minimum requirement to reproduce. That is, if a man was to be married for the first time, or even if he were married previously but has yet to father at least one son and one daughter, then they would have allowed him to wed during Sefira. The same applies for the prohibition during the three weeks. I have long wondered why Rabbis have not spoken up more about this, especially considering that 1. more young Jewish people desperately need to be getting married, and 2. if there were suddenly six more weeks of available wedding halls during the spring and summer, the relative costs of renting a hall would be reduced, something which would benefit all of society. Indeed, back in 2001, I was brought along to witness a wedding between two young, secular Jews outside of Netanya conducted by one of the Rabbis from the then relatively new Tzohar organization. The Rabbi’s reasoning was that because we are contented with the fact that they wish to marry per halacha and learn about family purity, we do not seek to impose more than the halacha demands upon them. I still have photographs of the local town rabbi coming to protest to the officiating Rabbi in the parking lot after the ceremony. “How can you conduct the wedding during Omer?” “It was now or never.”

Question: How should I relate to Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day?

Answer: Jerusalem Day is the anniversary of the miraculous victory God granted the Jewish people over those who would have wiped them out. If you do not know about the history of the day, shame on your school system and the people running it, and woe to you for not knowing that just like He saved us in the days of Moses, and Mordechai, and Mattithyahu, He did so in even greater fashion while you and your parents and grandparents were alive, during the Six Day War. The celebration of Jerusalem Day is more important than Purim, when we were also saved from our enemies, except that after Jerusalem Day we were free from the yoke of foreign domination and we can still appreciate the effects the day had on our everyday lives. Granted, the Jewish people failed in their mission to then rebuild the Temple, but that can soon be remedied. One therefore is obligated to mark the day with praise and thanks to the Lord by 1. reciting  the full Hallel with the blessings “liqro” or “ligmor eth hahallel,”  and “sheheheyanu,” and 2. by holding a festive meal featuring meat and wine as he would on any other holiday dedicated to recognizing God’s hand in Jewish history. See here for more elaboration.

Question: Should I stay up and study Torah the entire night of Shavu’oth?

A: Torah study is wonderful. If only we spent as much time doing so all year round. The practice of staying up all night is relatively recent; Hazal and the rishonim never heard of such a thing, and you are certainly not obligated to do so. If it will ruin the rest of your Yom Tov, you should not do so. Hazal assumed that like every Yom Tov, the day of Shavu’oth should be divided evenly between studying and partying, not sleeping and snoozing. Also, it is interesting to note that Maimonides and others believed that it is proper for a disciple of the sages to fulfill his marital duties on the nights of the Sabbaths, New Moons, and Festivals, yet  because of kabbalistic influences, there are now minhagim to specifically avoid intimacy, if not miqweh night, on the night of Shavu’oth, the night of Rosh Hashana, while in the sukka, the night of Sh’mini Atzereth, and the night of the seder, thus effectively leaving no festival night for fulfilling this commandment. The Vilna Gaon believed that one should never let a mere practice get in the way of fulfilling a mitzwa

Question: So where did the minhag come from, and why does everyone do it?

Answer: First of all, not everybody does. I know of many scholars and even community Rabbis who do not keep the practice, and recently I even met some who are vocally opposed. Secondly, the practice comes from the Zohar. There, the idea that staying awake the night before experiencing a divine revelation is explained in a deeply esoteric manner, one with which I am not qualified to speak of, and even those who are and were qualified spoke little of. Thus for example, the Beth Yosef himself attempted to stay awake the entire night, and even he did not have a full quorum of ten men with whom to share the experience. Further, even though it was his practice, he neither recommended it for the masses, nor did he record it in the Shulhan Aruch, because such a practice is not meant for the masses, and would do them more harm than good. Ironically, the Zohar says that the practice of staying up all night is an ancient practice; before the Zohar was published publicly, no one knew that, and in the Beth Yosef’s time he and his colleagues were attempting to revive what they believed was a practice that had fallen into disuse. (Those who would challenge the antiquity of the Zohar would claim that they were creating a practice.) Later, less mystically inclined Aharonim, posited that because the Midrash (Shir Hashirim Rabba 1:12, now available in both Hebrew and English here) describes how the Israelites had to be woken up by God and his entourage, so to speak, on the morning of the Revelation, we have the practice to stay up the entire night of Shavu’oth in order to make up for that mistake. This is the explanation, for example, given in the Mishna B’rura, which tellingly omits the earlier, kabbalisitc rationales for the custom. Those who would not stay up all night respond that: 1. This Midrash, like numerous others, is not describing the actual incident as it unfolded, but is actually possessed of much deeper meaning, and should not be taken so literally, and 2. even if taken to be literally true, there is nothing we can do now that can make up for what has already happened. 3. Others posit that going to sleep on time and making sure to wake up bright and early accomplishes the same goal as staying up all night, and has the added benefit of allowing one to pray properly by the time morning arrives. You yourself have seen how many are falling flat on their faces during the more than two hour long services that follow staying up all night. Prayer and Torah reading are obligations, and one’s observance of minor customs can not be allowed to interfere with their performance, and it is therefore obvious that if one will not be able to, for example, read the Sh’ma, say his prayers, and concentrate on the Torah reading, then he of course should not stay up all night. This is perhaps yet another reason why the Beth Yosef did not codify his own practice. But, people are people, and society is the strongest influence, and if the custom has become more and more widespread it is attributable to the popularity of high-level Torah study. In previous centuries few merited to be able to attend Yeshiva; now most do, and it reflects well on our generation that so many at least aspire to be like the Beth Yosef. Further, there are many laymen who can barely find the time/will to spend a few minutes on Shabbos studying Torah, and if they are of the belief that on a particular day of the year they have to spend many hours studying, that is a very good thing, so you can see why Rabbis would encourage all-night study despite the drawbacks.

Question: Why do you disregard any minhag al pi qabbala, a practice based on qabbala?

Answer: I have not disregarded anything. I have only insisted on prioritizing the commandments that are explicit in the Torah and the Talmud over other practices. Whenever a minhag is explained to be “al pi qabbala,” it is code for a practice being created out of whole cloth by someone, much later than Hazal, who believed that because of his reading of the Zohar or some other mystical work, the practice should be changed. In the sixteenth century, when there was a Jewish mystical and scholarly renaissance in and around Safed, and inspired individuals like the Ari and the Beith Yoseif flourished, it was en vogue to create and adopt these types of practices. They believed that the practices would somehow help bring the Redemption closer. We have now been shown that the key to bringing about the Redemption is and always was our taking the initiative and fulfilling the obligations incumbent upon us as a nation, but in those desperate times it was harder to see the truth.

(Updated 7 Kislew 5778)


From → halacha, original

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