On Root / On Fiery Angels and Evil Twins

Jeremy Benstein
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Jeremy Benstein

There is the lovely green, tree-appreciating holiday of Tu Bishvat in mid-winter, but in the spring, Jewish tradition presents its evil twin: Lag Ba'omer.

Whereas Tu Bishvat is dedicated to tree-planting, Lag Ba'omer's central celebration is: tree-burning.

Well, hopefully not actual living trees, but large amounts of wood are incinerated in huge and ubiquitous bonfires that dot the Israeli landscape to commemorate the passing of the great 2nd-century mystic Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, reputed author of the Zohar.

Tu Bishvat means "the 15th of the month of Shvat." Lag Ba'omer, which falls this week, is also a gematria, a letter-number equivalency. The letters lamed and gimel, the "l" and "g" of Lag, add up to 33, signifying the 33rd day of counting from Passover to Shavuot.

Last week in honor of Earth Day, we explored eretz and adamah, "earth" and "land." This week, as fires blaze up and down the land, we will focus on a different basic element - fire.

Ready, aim fires

While there is one central Hebrew word for the idea of "fire," eish, there are many terms for different kinds of fires.

Eish is a mass noun, with no regular plural form, and no root that can be conjugated. So for instance, while you can't use eish to "fire a gun" (and certainly not to fire a person), it can be used in the phrases hafsakat eish, "ceasefire," and eish tzolevet, "crossfire" (from tzlav, "cross" – like that cross).

Likewise, eish is the word of choice for metaphorical uses of the idea of fire, such as lesachek be-eish, "playing with fire," or if the weather is cham-eish, it is "blazing hot."

But eish is also real fire, as in the classic Israeli BBQ, which is also part of the Lag Ba'omer festivities. The Israeli name of the universal outdoor grilled meat meal is simply 'al ha-eish, "on the fire."

If all that barbecuing gets out of hand, you might need to call the fire department, or mechabei eish, literally, "fire putter-outers."

But an individual fire, especially one that is not under control, is a sereifah, and "to burn" something, whether a forest, money or time is lisrof. This word is familiar to English speakers from "seraph" (pl. seraphim), the "fiery angels" of lore and legend (see Isaiah, chapter 6). And if you spend your work day dealing with petty emergencies, you are mechabeh sereifot, "putting out fires."

Come on, baby!

Hebrew has yet another word for fire, deleikah,based on the root, d-l-k. This is the most productive root in the family of fire-related words. Put this root in the causative form, and you light a fire: lehadlik, as in the traditional blessing for kindling the Shabbat candles. If used as an adjective – that guy is totally madlik! – it means he's hot, he lights your fire.

You'll see signs all over Israel advertising delek, which means "fuel," and is also the brand name of a chain of gas stations, where you can stop to fill up, letadlek (though for gasoline itself, people usually say benzin).

While delek is an ancient word, letadlek is, of course, a modern coinage. Another recent innovative use of the root, this time from the medical realm, is in describing the burning pain that even in English is described as "an inflammation" – in Hebrew, a daleket.

A ring of fire

But the most common term you will hear on Lag Ba'omer itself is medurah, a "campfire" or "bonfire," where people come and sit (giving us the Yiddish term used in Hebrew – kumzitz), eat, sing and tell stories.

It is appropriate to celebrate a holiday, a chag, with a medurah, for both words conjure up the idea of sitting (or dancing) in a circle.

The word chag is connected to chug, "circle," and medurah is from the root d-v-r, which in Arabic means "to circle or turn around," and in Hebrew gives us a family of words that connect to home – ladur is "to reside," and a dirah is "an apartment." Villages of yore would be built in a circular fashion, with events such as celebrations occurring in the circle of friends and relations of one's community.

Celebratory campfires, too, can remind us that home is indeed where the hearth is.

Comments? Queries? Quibbles? Write: jeremybenstein@gmail.com. Particularly promising or piquant posts will be addressed in this space.

Children celebrating Lag Ba'omer in the Mea She'arim neighborhood of Jerusalem.Credit: Lior Mizrahi
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Children celebrating Lag Ba'omer in the Mea She'arim neighborhood of Jerusalem.Credit: Lior Mizrahi
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Children celebrating Lag Ba'omer in Jerusalem, April 27, 2013.Credit: Emil Salman
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Lag Ba'omer in Modi’in Ilit, April 27, 2013.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

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