In Israel the day is also known for its bonfires, which some people even use to toast their bagels and buns. Popular customs often develop a momentum of their own, but they must have had a beginning.
Was the Lag Ba’Omer bonfire connected with the ancient cultures that focussed on fire and its creation, or was there a deeper reason?
Fires and flares certainly had a connection with the wars against the Romans out of which Lag Ba’Omer arose.
They also recall that flares were lit to signal the new moon, thus allowing for the celebration of the festivals on the correct dates – and the days leading up to Shavu’ot (i.e. the period of the Omer) were differently calculated depending on whether you were a Pharisee or Sadducee.
Another possibility is that the kabbalistic passion which attached such importance to Lag Ba’Omer was a fiery form of spiritual exhilaration.
Meron, where the bonfires are so special, is a kabbalistic venue and the site of the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the reputed author of the Zohar, the kabbalistic text. The Talmud reports that he and his son fled from the Romans and lived in a cave for 13 years, studying and meditating.
When they emerged they were shocked at the banality of the world around them – whatever the rabbi looked at burst into flames – so they were sent back to the cave for another year until they realised that commonplace living was not to be despised.