Lag Baomer In The Eyes Of The Litvishe Tradition: R. Dov Halbertal’s Critique, Rendered Into English – ל”ג בעומר בעיני גדולי ומסורת ליטא

(Although I posted about R. Halbertal’s piece earlier this week, I noticed that many readers did not click on the link to his Hebrew article there, thereby missing out on the full flavor and power of the piece. Since I believe it reflects well, to a great degree, the viewpoint of the Ashkenazic tradition in general, as well as the Litvishe way, and is therefore worthy of wider dissemination, I decided to attempt an English rendering of it, which follows. It is not an authorized translation in consultation with R. Halbertal, so I cannot claim to have captured his every point and nuance, but I think it conveys his message, generally speaking.

Note: Some of the phenomena that R. Halbertal is reacting to may not be familiar to readers who have not been to Meron, as well as readers in the diaspora, so please keep that in mind before jumping to conclusions.)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

In recent years, there is developing and spreading a phenomenon that sees in the Lag Baomer celebrations a מצוה גדולה (great mitzvah), which is almost obligatory. The day is not far when people will be embarrassed if they did not take part in the pilgrimage to the tomb of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai, and the celebrations surrounding it. All this with great support and backing, along with strong promotion, from the secular and religious media.

I do not come, חלילה, to damage the old traditions of ascending to the kever and kindling lights and praying there. However, in recent years, the phenomenon has gotten out of hand, exceeding its actual importance and proper boundaries.

Relating to such a phenomenon requires introspection regarding the position of גדולי ישראל, the great leaders of the Jewish people, with regard to it. In one of his talks, Rav Schach remarked that the Lag Baomer celebrations are not a ‘great mitzvah’ – that the Chazon Ish was very meticulous in his pursuit of mitzvos, and if it was such a great mitzvah he would have been pursued it, and ascended to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai himself. Rav Elyashiv as well, was asked a great many times about it,  especially in the later years, with the growth of the phenomenon. His response was given in various formulations, such as ‘I was never there’, ‘Rav Shimon (Bar Yochai) is in the Mishnah’, and so on.

And if the Chazon Ish, Rav Schach, Rav Elyashiv, Roshei Yeshivos, and many other gedolim, saw in Lag Baomer a day to be emphasized with a strengthening of Torah learning, can we know better than they? What is all the great streaming to Meron, and the multiplicity of ceremonies, that lack commonality with the world of these paramount leaders, who shaped the way of Torah and the world of Yeshivos in the land of Israel?

The coarseness that surrounds the day threatens the centrality of Torah learning 

One can say that the great drift and the developing trend surrounding the day, that sees the celebration of Lag Baomer at the tomb of Rashbi as an obligatory commandment, stems in great measure from the fact that the chiloni (non orthodox) public, which seeks Jewish identity without properly finding it, finds it proper to perform commandments according to the inclinations of their emotions, which do not stem from a sense of obligation.

Similarly, the ease of traveling there, and the many ‘tikkunim’ that are performed for many problems there, encourage and contribute to the phenomenon. The various media contribute to the development of the phenomenon, directly or indirectly, by way of extended and detailed descriptions of the celebrations of the day, and interviews with public personalities and Rabbis who proclaim great importance to the ascent to the tomb and related matters.

The vulgarity that surrounds the various circles of the religious public at these celebrations threatens the centrality of Torah learning, and the understanding that that is the true will of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai, rather than the transformation of the day to a full day of celebration and partying, that is not accepted by the recorders of oral traditions, and transmitters of our tradition.

I write all this because, it seems to me, that people have even ceased to talk about it.

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13 Responses to “Lag Baomer In The Eyes Of The Litvishe Tradition: R. Dov Halbertal’s Critique, Rendered Into English – ל”ג בעומר בעיני גדולי ומסורת ליטא”

  1. Dan Levy Says:

    I find this discussion most illuminating, as I similarly don’t recall in my youth any of the fanfare that goes with Lag B’Omer nowadays. Is it not significant that we say Lamnatzeach after Ashrei in Shacharis on Lag B’Omer? Surely, if this is a day of such simcha, that psalm would have been omitted?

  2. Treasures of Ashkenaz Says:

    Thank you.

    Yes, learning from gedolei Yisroel can be more illuminating than even a towering bonfire.

    By the way, as mentioned in a previous post, according to Minhag Ashkenaz tachanun is said even at the tefillas mincha of Lag Baomer itself as well (see comments here for more on that).

  3. cmb Says:

    You should see the extremely strong terms Chacham Ovadiah uses against going up to Meron on Lag Laomer, in Yechaveh Daat vol. 5 – siman 35!!!

  4. Zvi Hakohen Says:

    You totally ignore the sefardi and chassidishe traditions and literature on this topic. To attribute the increasing popularity to chilonim is ridiculous. And you fail to raise the true concern in year’s like this and that is the chilul shabbos on the part of the police r”l. Rashbi would not be happy.

  5. Treasures of Ashkenaz Says:

    You can take up any issues with the piece with R. Halbertal. I didn’t write it.

    If you read all the posts here on the topic, you will see that Sephardic and Chasidic traditions are indeed discussed, in depth as well. It is a grave mistake to assume that Sephardim and Chasidim are all uniformly gung ho in favor of the Lag Baomer Meron pilgrimage. Those that present that as a given are really misrepresenting things.

    I think R. Halbertal is quite perceptive in his critique. He is someone who knows what’s going on, whether you agree with all of his positions or not. When he mentions chilonim, perhaps he is referring to to what others call traditional Jews, as well as those in the media that he talks about.

  6. Aa Says:

    The other side of the story:

    Rav Morgenstern, a contemporary rosh yeshiva of a kabbalistic yeshiva, said in a recent weekly gilyon – that if one would take off time learning to go to a doctor for a physical illness one should surely go to Meron for a refuah for his spiritual illness. Obviously a great tzadik like Rav elyashiv or chazon ish did not need to go to Meron they had Rashbi in their learning Gemara, we don’t. Bringing proofs from earlier times does not do much good since our spiritual condition today is bichinas choli.

  7. Treasures of Ashkenaz Says:

    Cute rationalization. But I don’t buy it, and those who follow the Ashkenaz and Litvishe shitah and mesorah don’t either.

    Rav Morgenstern seems to assume that Meron is a refuah, a spiritual cure. Well, from what we have seen and gathered it could be, on the contrary, bad for spiritual health. Whether due to pritzus, bittul Torah, and/or other problematic aspects of the scene there. Sometimes the ‘cure’ can be worse than the disease.

    Everyone has Rav Shimon Ben Yochai in their sefer, not just Rav Elyashiv and the Chazon Ish. You are saying that we can’t learn from Rav Elyashiv’s position because he is from earlier times? But he just was niftar, less than a year ago!

    If our generation is bibechinas choli (considered spiritually ill), perhaps it is because people seek quick and easy cures? Seems analogous to popping pills instead of living a healthy lifestyle.

    If there is a machlokes between Rav Elyashiv, Chazon Ish, Rav Schach and Rav Morgenstern. I am going with the first three.

    • aa Says:

      No one is asking you to buy it. There are two sides to the issue.

      • Treasures of Ashkenaz Says:

        Yes, and the other side is making so much noise with its propaganda, that the impression is given that opposition to their practices by gedolei olam doesn’t exist. That is why pieces like that of R. Halbertal are so important, and pronouncements by gedolim against such customs so precious.

        P.S. Do you see comments on their ads telling of the shitos of those opposing them? Are you protesting to them why they don’t mention the אוסרים?

      • Aa Says:

        I didn’t know they had websites. What propaganda?

    • Treasures of Ashkenaz Says:

      Hard to understand the question, unless you are living in a cave, like Rabbi Shimon. But if so, it seems like your cave may have wi-fi, unlike his. ;-)

      Seek and you shall find. If you search for Meron and Rashbi you will find sites. But it is not just those sites, it is videos on other sites, advertisements in the print media, posters, and more. Live video feeds on Lag Baomer from Meron (is one ‘yotzei’ the ‘chiyuv’ of aliyah to Meron on Lag Baomer that way? ;-) as well.

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