Yona Metzger
Israel's Chief Rabbinate Yona Metzger. Photo by Archive
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Just two and a half weeks before the Lag Ba’omer holiday, Orthodox rabbis are racking their brains trying to figure out if Israelis should break with tradition and defer the lighting of bonfires by a day so as not to desecrate the Sabbath.

The holiday begins this year on Saturday evening May 21, and Israelis normally begin preparing beforehand. People would also have to delay the traditional pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Mount Meron in the north.

Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Yona Metzger, is beseeching rabbinical leaders to defer the pilgrimage to Mount Meron by a day, or at least by several hours.

Metzger’s office acknowledged yesterday that the chances of reaching a consensus on the issue were slim because the idea is opposed by a diverse coalition including anti-Zionist rabbis and the teachers’ unions.

The teachers oppose the change because it would interfere with the math matriculation exam. Some rabbis have asked Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar to move the Lag Ba’omer school holiday from Sunday May 22 to Monday May 23. But that’s the day of the exam.

The problem is even more acute, however, for people traveling to Mount Meron. Even last year, many law enforcement personnel worked on the Sabbath to prepare for the huge crowds that head to the site. Metzger unsuccessfully tried to have Druze police officers deployed that day.

Rabbi David Stav of the Tzohar rabbinical organization said the proposal to defer the celebrations should be taken seriously. “We have found in the history of Jewish law that when there have been concerns that religious commandments would harm the sanctity of the Sabbath, the sages canceled or postponed them.”

He added that bonfires are not required by Jewish law; they’re simply a Jewish cultural practice. “This folklore is causing thousands of police and hundreds of thousands of Jews who light bonfires to desecrate the Sabbath,” he said. “All in all, the rabbis have to announce that the bonfires will take place on Sunday afternoon, and the Education Ministry has to defer the math matriculation exam by a day so millions can celebrate.”