Bonfires and the Bonds of Life
We remember the deceased with words of praise, memories, stones, sirens, and moments of silence. In the Jewish tradition, we also light candles to honor them.
  • Why do you think we mark the anniversary of a person's death with a yahrzeit (lit. "time of the year") candle?
  • What mood(s) does the yahrzeit candle typically evoke for you?
The book of Proverbs hints at a possible reason for lighting a candle on this occasion. One reading suggests that the flame of a candle can be an embodiment of the soul of a person:
נֵ֣ר יְ֭הוָה נִשְׁמַ֣ת אָדָ֑ם חֹ֝פֵ֗שׂ כָּל־חַדְרֵי־בָֽטֶן׃
The lifebreath of a person is the lamp of God, Revealing all of a person's inmost parts.
On Lag BaOmer, we light a flame as well. Our tradition gives almost as many reasons for why we light a flame on Lag BaOmer as there are ways to spell the holiday. One of the reasons we light a flame on Lag BaOmer is to remember Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who died on Lag BaOmer. It's his yahrzeit! But what we light is not quite a yahrzeit candle:
כבר מאות שנים נוהגים במירון, ליד קברו של רבי שמעון בר יוחאי, להדליק מדורה לכבוד הילולת רבי שמעון בר יוחאי. ואף בשאר מקומות נוהגים חסידים להדליק מדורות בל"ג בעומר. ויש שנהגו להדליק נרות בבית הכנסת לכבוד ההילולא.
For hundreds of years, there has been a custom to light a large bonfire near R. Shimon bar Yoḥai’s grave on Mount Meron, in honor of his hilula. Ḥasidim have a custom to light bonfires in other places as well. Some light candles in their synagogues in commemoration of the hilula.
A hilula is a yahrzeit - the Hebrew anniversary of someone's death - for a great teacher of Jewish mysticism. Rather than being a day of sadness and mourning, however, it is typically marked a day of celebration.
And in the case of Lag BaOmer, we celebrate this great teacher's yahrzeit by lighting bonfires outdoors and as a community.
  • Why do you think we have outdoor communal bonfires on Lag BaOmer, instead of lighting smaller yahrzeit candles within our own owns?
  • Imagine a world where we would hold celebrations to mark the yahrzeit's of our own friends or relatives who have had an impact on us. How "Jewish" would that feel to you?
  • Like the light of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his Torah, which we help keep alive as a community on Lag BaOmer, who in your life has a fire you'd like to reignite or keep aglow? How can you use the power of togetherness and community to make sure their light never goes out?