Think again! – A Bonfire in Bondi

So this week the bonfire celebration of Lag B’omer lit up the night sky at No. 1 Penkivil Street Bondi on the small vacant lot near the Tzemach Tzedek shule.

I don’t know how Benny Amzalak (President of Tzemack Tzedek shule) pulled this one off in a residential area, especially this bonfire, it was huge, seven eight feet high.

I remember growing up in the seventies; all of us children excitedly anticipated cracker and bonfire night.  It was a night of skyrockets, bungers, penny-thunders, Tom Thumbs, ball-shooters, throwdowns, Roman candles, blazing parachutes and sky rockets.  My parents let me roam the streets with the gentiles until late and we excitedly had loads of childish fun, not to mention the letter box pranks.

Cracker night commemorated, Guy Fawkes Night, which commemorated the foiled plot by a person called Guy

Saint Dominic presiding over an auto-da-fé, by Pedro Berruguete (around 1495) Credit: Francisco Rizi

Fawkes to burn down the House of Lords in England in 1605.  I don’t know why you would call a holiday after a failed saboteur.  Bonfires became a pagan custom with the burning of the Fawkes effigy throughout Europe but have always had religious connotations.  An autoda was the public execution by burning at the stake, of condemned heretics many of whom were Jews during the medieval period, especially during the Spanish inquisition. It was a horrific death, designed to eradicate the evil spirit of the devil.  In the second century, the Roman Emperor had the Talmudic sage Rabbi Chanania ben Teradyon, wrapped in a Torah scroll and publicly burned alive during the destruction of ancient Judaea.  We read his story in the very moving Yom Kippur late afternoon prayer “Asarei Harugei malchios” when most of the congregants have fallen by the wayside.

Thankfully the bonfire has much more heart warming memories of nostalgia, and protective comfort.

I recall the bonfire nights at Gan Izzi overnight Camps. The councillors always had hot dogs, marshmellows and real scary stories to tell around the fire.  The older kids were allowed to stay up all night and sleep under the stars in sleeping bags.

Camp fires have always been a source of protection and comfort. The Havdalah candle after Shabbat is supposed to resemble the imagery of a bon fire.  Following that first Shabbat, as God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden he taught them the secret of fire.  Symbolically the burning Havdalah-candle, became mans act of partnership with God; it symbolised the six day working week of man and the six day creative week of God.

The Lag B’omer bonfire commemorates the Yahrtzeit (passing) of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on the eighteenth of Iyar (33rd day of Omer) in the first century CE. Rabbi Shimon was relentlessly pursued by the Romans;  Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elozer famously hid in a cave in Meron for thirteen years and survived on a carob tree  which they roasted on their bonfire. They authored the principal book of Kabalah, the Sefer H’Zohar.

Credit: jewishexponent.com

Today Lag Bomer is celebrated in Meron with hundreds of thousands of visitors.  That’s where you see the real huge 10 metre bonfires.  Lag B’omer is also marked as a day of the upsherin, the first haircut of a 3 year old child. I am uncertain as to why the upsherin custom relates to lag bomer, maybe one of my now growing thirty three readers could tell me.  Lag B’omer is also the day when we allow our children to play bows and arrows; this is a reference to the fact the the rainbow which is a warning sign to mankind never appeared in the life- time of Rabbi Shimon due to his considerable spiritual stature.  The word for rainbow and bow and arrow in Hebrew are the same – keshet. Other commentaries stipulate that Rabbi Shimon’s prayers are particularly conducive in finding your life-marriage partner, your true love and shidduch.  A shidduch is like shooting an arrow towards the heart of love and catching your perfect match. I think this is where the Greek mythology of the Cupid love god came from.

Our Shuie was born on the eve of Lag B’omer and he bears the name Yehoshua Shimon after the sage.  Rabbi Shimon also had the distinction of being the only Talmudic sage mentioned in every chapter of the Talmud.

This brings me to the “case of the Missing Coogee Talmud’s”.  We have a set of Artscroll translated English Talmud’s in the front foyer of the synagogue.  There are seventy two volumes in this set.  The Talmud formulated the halachic and regulative laws of the oral tradition.  Jewish life and culture today is based on these writings of the Talmudic sages, who when studying in session, were known as the Sanhedrin which is a Greek word meaning assembly or council.  We have four volumes from our Artscroll set missing. Volume 19 “Taanis” which discusses the laws around fast days; volume 38 “Baba Kama” which discusses civil, monetary and damages law; volume 50 “Makot” the laws of corporal punishment and volume 72 “Niddah” the laws of separation.  Each volume cost over $100 at Gold’s.  We are perplexed, can it be that there are individuals out there burning the midnight oil, studying these sacred texts, even through the night. As a friendly reminder of this oversight, our Bar/Bat Mitzvah club children put up a collage of the Ten Commandments in the front foyer entrance, reminding us of Commandment NO. 7 “thou shalt not steal”

I am silently praying that our Talmud’s have not been inadvertently thrown into the Bondi Bonfire, reminiscent of the public blood curdling burnings of the hundreds of volumes of Talmud’s destroyed during the Medieval Ages. These were church sanctioned book burning affairs, which always followed the public disputations between Judaism and Christianity. They were never fair debates, if the Jews won they lost and if the Jews lost they lost and whatever the outcome, the Talmud’s were torched.

I am thinking that this maybe the source for the custom of the everlasting Shabbat burning cholent that sends a fiery aroma throughout every Jewish home and synagogue for Shabbat lunch. There cannot be another significant reason for eating that burnt brown bean stuff. See you in shule for cholent this Shabbat morning.

As always L’chaim
Good shabbos
See you in shule

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Rabbi Elozer Gestetner. Coogee Synagogue, an Orthodox synagogue in Coogee, a beach-side suburb of Sydney.  The rabbi and his family are Chabad-Lubavitch and are representatives of the world wide Chabad Chassidic Movement

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