Monday, May 19, 2008

Is Burning A Pyre to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai An Idolatrous or Superstitious Custom?

{Note: Certainly not intended halacha lemaaseh. Rather, just something I want to explore.}

It would certainly seem potentially problematic. The practice of burning pyres for kings at their funerals turns out not to be a superstitious practice of the Emorites. In the Tosefta of Shabbos, perek 8, we read:

שורפין על המלכים ולא מדרכי האמורי שנאמר (ירמיהו לד) בשלום תמות ובמשרפות וגו' כשם ששורפין על המלכים כך שורפין על הנשיאים אבל לא על הדיוטות ומה הן שורפין עליו מטתו וכלי תשמישו מעשה שמת ר"ג הזקן ושרף עליו אונקלוס הגר יותר משבעים מנה.
Thus, in honor of kings, they made pyres where they burned things. This was a way of showing kavod, honor, and it is thus not a superstitious practice. This at the least means when Jews do it but may mean when gentiles do it as well.

This Tosefta therefore allows burning of pyres for Jewish kings, and also for the Nasi. The Nasi was the prince, the head of the Sanhedrin. The incident described in the Tosefta bears this latter point out. Rabban Gamliel the Zaken was a Nasi, and Onkelos the Convert burned more that 70 manehs worth in his honor.

However, the Tosefta notes, this is only for a king or a nasi. One should not do this for a hedyot, which in this context I would regard as a "commoner," non-royalty.

And though Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was surely a great Tanna, he was not a Nasi. As such, burning pyres in his honor on the anniversary of his death (assuming it actually is the anniversary of his death and not a taus sofer) is perhaps misguided.

Perhaps we should simply cast hedyot as any non-prestigious person, in which case Rashbi was prestigious. What is the nature of the distinction of hedyot/non-hedyot? Does the pasuk allow and set precedent for burning pyres specifically for Jewish kings and royalty, thus encompassing the Nesiim. All Nesiim with the exclusion of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai were descended from Hillel, and thus from Bet David. But we see a pyre was made for Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. It could be a function of the office. Alternatively, the idea of king or nasi was that this is done for honor, as the gemara clarifies. And for a hedyot, perhaps it would not be done for honor, but rather for some superstitious purpose.

Of course, all sorts of reasons are given for the lighting of the bonfires. But surely they are being lit in honor of Rashbi's yahrtzeit. Which again, might be for a hedyot, or for a non-hedyot.

Add to that the following. To cite this site:
There is another reason. The fire represents the Jewish Neshama. (soul) It say in Proverbs, "The Soul of Man is Hashem's candle (light). The bonfire is a symbol of the igniting of the Jewish soul on this day, and its desire to come closer to Hashem.

Rebbi Yisrael of Rizhin, by way of the Rabbis of Sfas, purchased, at great expense, the right to light the main bonfire in Meron on Lag B'Omer for all time. It has passed on to his descendants even today as an inheritance.

Once when his grandson, the Sadigorer Rebbi was asked about this phenomenon, he answered, "Tens of thousands of souls have been healed because of this bonfire which is lit in the honor of the Holy Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai!!"

It is one thing to do something in honor of someone, even if not a king or prince. But when you think that this fire has mystical properties (as can develop when talking about festivals attended by thousands of people for a kabbalistic personality), we might be wandering into dangerous territory. On the other hand, it could be that the festival somehow brings people closer to Hashem. I am not entirely sure how to interpret this statement. How have tens of thousands of souls been healed by the bonfire? Is this in a mystical sense?

It is also important to note that according to the setama digmara's interpretation and harmonization of the Mishna with the Tosefta (see my full citation of the Mishna and Gemara below in order to understand the following comments), it might well be that everyone agrees that burning pyres is not a superstitious custom, but rather that it is a mark of honor, and Rabbi Meir and the Sages argue whether idolatry happens at such events, if there is, and if there is not, such a pyre.

What follows is the Mishna and Gemara in Avodah Zarah about pyres for kings. There is the Mishna, from daf 8a:

And then the gemara, on Avodah Zara 11a:

THE BIRTHDAY AND ANNIVERSARIES OF KINGS DEATHS. [THIS IS R. MEIR'S OPINION. THE SAGES SAY IDOLATRY ONLY OCCURS AT A DEATH AT WHICH BURNING OF ARTICLES TAKES PLACE.] This implies that R. Meir is of opinion that at every death, whether there is burning of articles or there is no burning, idol-worship takes place — consequently, the burning of articles is not an [idolatrous] cult. From which is to be inferred that the Rabbis hold that burning [of articles at a funeral] is an [idolatrous] cult; what then of the following which has been taught: The burning of articles at a king's [funeral] is permitted and there is nothing of Amorite usage about it? Now if it is a cult of idolatry how could such burning be allowed? Is it not written, and in their statutes ye shall not walk? — Hence, all agree that burning is not an idolatrous cult and is merely a mark of high esteem [for the deceased]; where they differ is this: R. Meir holds that at every death, whether burning of articles takes place or does not take place. there is idol-worship; but the Rabbis hold that a death at which burning takes place is regarded as important and is marked by idol-worship, but one at which no burning takes place is unimportant and is not marked by idol-worship.

[To return to] the main text. 'The burning of articles at a king's [funeral] is permitted and there is nothing of Amorite usage about it,' as it is said, Thou shalt die in peace and with burnings of thy fathers, the former kings that were before thee, so shall they make a burning for thee. And just as it is permitted to burn at the [funerals] of kings so it is permitted to burn in the case of princes. What is it that may be burnt in the case of kings? — Their beds and articles that were in use by them. In the instance of the death of R. Gamaliel the elder, Onkelos the proselyte burnt after him seventy Tyrian manehs. But did you not say that only articles in use by them could be burnt?— What is meant is [articles] 'to the value of seventy Tyrian manehs.'

I am not sure that I agree with this harmonization, and would rather suggest that the Chachamim disagree with the Tosefta. Or rather that they would agree when done for gentile kings by gentiles, it is indeed an idolatrous cult and so it is a festival in that sense which is relevant to those halachos being discussed in Avodah Zarah. But whether Jews can burn pyres for their own kings -- since there is Scriptural basis for the practice for Jewish kings, it is done in honor of the Jewish kings, has precedent, and is not Darkei Emori. Thus, I would suggest the harmonization is misguided.

At the very least, I would point out that the Tosefta explicitly says that one should not burn such pyres for a hedyot, a commoner. And such is made clear in the gemara as well, when it cites that one may do so for a Nasi. This surely reads at odds with the harmonization which has the pyres always being only for honor. Except we can say that what all are in agreement to, according to the gemara, is that for kings it is only a mark of honor, rather than this being the case in general. But in other situations, indeed pyres may be superstitious.

Another point. Are we conflating pyres made at the time of death with pyres made on the anniversary of the death? The Tosefta appears to be talking about the king's funeral. Thus Onkelos burned 70 maneh worth at Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai's funeral, and the articles the king used are burned at the funeral.

In contrast, the Mishna refers to Yom HaLeida and Yom haMisa, which are anniversaries of the king's birth and death. This is a recurring, year to year, occurrence. Perhaps pyres in such a situation are indeed problematic for perhaps they can be cast as worship of the king, but at the actual funeral, burning the king's possessions so that no-one else can benefit from them, in honor of him, or expressing sadness in this way, is simply honor.

At any rate, these were just my musings, but not intended halacha lemaaseh in any way.


Anonymous said...

The Simcha of Lag Baomer is a strange concept. The Shulchan Aruch says on the day A Tzaddik dies you make a fast. Where did this day of happiness come from? The GR"A says it was the day that the Students of Reb Akiva Stopped dying. The Question still stands Reb Shimon Bar Yochai died on this day, what is the Celebration about? The answer brought by the Kadmonim is that Reb Shimon Bar Yochai himself said there should be a celebration on the day of his death. The Shach in Hilchos Aveilus also brings down a similar premise that if a father says not to act like an Avel the full 12 months we follow his command. This is because the whole Halacha of mourning is only in honor of the parent. Therefore if he asks you not to act in a manner of mourning then of course you listen. Now we must understand why did Reb Shimon say to celebrate his death when we know when a Tzaddik dies it like the Destruction of the Beis Hamikdash? There is yet another problem with the Lag Baomer Celebrations the Shoel Umashiv and the Chasam Sofer in their Seforim in a very strong language say that the Minhag of burning clothing which is prevalent at the Kever of Reb Shimon Bar Yochai in Miron is a problem of Baal Taschis (Destroying things without Purpose) and worse Darchei Amori (Behaving as a Idol worshipper). In defense we have a Mesorah that the Ohr Hachaim Hakodesh followed the Minhag of burning the clothing. The Aruch Hashulchan provides another reason for the Celebration of Lag Ba'omer that that it was the day Reb Shimon and his son where finally allowed to leave the cave in which they where hiding. A remez to this concept is that the Gemora that says the story of Reb Shimon leaving the cave is on Daf: Lamed Gimmel. The Mon also started falling on Lag Ba'omer. There is a Zohar in Parshas Hazinu that says that the day that Reb Shimon said over the secrets of the torah was on Lag Ba'omer and that was the day he died ,The students where afraid he would die before he would give over all the secrets, so when it happened they where overjoyed. In his final conversation he said "The whole day is in my control and now I have the right to say over all the secrets before I go to the next world in order that I not be embarrassed when I go up to Shmayim" . There are two thousand two hundred and twenty five Teachings from Reb Shimon Bar Yochai in Sifra, Bavli, and Yerushalmi. But the Secrets of the torah the SOD he was only able to tell over the day he died.
In conclusion, what is the answer to all the above questions? The reason the day the Tzaddik dies is such a sad day that it is considered similar to the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash is because of the loss of Torah to the people in this world. The Tzaddik is going to Gan Eden .The only people who lose out are the people he left behind in this world. The day Reb Shimon died is fundamentally different. That is because as the Zohar says the secrets of the torah the actual text of the Zohar was able to be said and copied over on this day so it is not a day of sadness and fasting but a day like Purim and Shavous a day of receiving the torah of Nistar (the hidden aspects of Torah) and therefore a day full of joy happiness and a celebration. The significance of the Mon was as the Mamar Chazal says the Mon was only given to those who ate the Mon. Now to the final question why burn the clothes? When Reb Shimon bar Yochai left the cave everything one looked at got BURNT thereafter the other would look at it and return it to the way it was. The reason why everything was burnt up was that they where so separated from the frivolity of this world they could not stand to look at it .The burning of the clothes symbolized that we should aspire to be like Reb Shimon and try to separate ourselves from Gashmius of this world and try to live on a higher spiritual level. The burning of clothing being allowed to teach a moral lesson would still seem to be a problem. This too can now be answered. The gemara in Mesechtos Tomid states when the Kohanim had Guard duty and they feel asleep on the job the Gemara says "Reshus Hayah Lisrof Es bigadav" Therefore we plainly see a source that allows the burning of clothing to teach a lesson in Halacha .This is as long as there is a lesson to be learnt hence the Chasam Sofer and the Shoel Umashiv are answered. There is also the question of what is the reason for the fires? The simple answer given is just as we know we light a small candle for a soul on a Yahrtzeit like the Chazal say "Ner Hashem Nishmas Adam" therefore for a great soul we light a large fire. There is another answer given that Reb Shimon was on such a level that with his Ohr Hatorah he was able to stop the Night from coming therefore we light fires to symbolize the light of his torah that is still here.

joshwaxman said...

The fact that one can come up with a teretz, though, does not mean that the teretz is a really good one.

As one example, "hence the Chasam Sofer and the Shoel Umashiv are answered." The Chasam Sofer was an educated and intelligent individual, and surely he could also come up with with terutzim such as this. The question is whether he would be persuaded by such. Because the brain is a tool whose function is to come up with rationalizations, whether they are persuasive or not. (The Ohr haChaim was a kabbalist, so I would expect him to do participate as he is said to have done.) Similarly, Rav Yosef Karo considered shlugging kapparos to be a minhag shtus, and others thought there were elements of darkei Emori. The fact that other rabbinic people were in favor of it and gave defenses of it does not mean that such defenses are not weak, or that they would certainly have convinced the opponents of the practice.

Do people actually learn a moral lesson from the burning of silk clothing? All evidence points to the fact that many people consider it a segulah, thus a magical act, rather than as something to teach a moral lesson. In which case the problems of Darkei Emori come back.

In terms of Zohar as a source, there is the complication that perhaps it is a late forgery, perhaps by Avraham Abulafia, perhaps by Rav Moshe de Leon and or others. Which may be why we do not find reference to this important yahrtzeit in Talmud Bavli and Talmud Yerushalmi. There is more to write, but this is just a taste of what one could say.

Kol Tuv,

joshwaxman said...

Ah, I see you posted this exact text on Mystical Paths as well...

Anonymous said...

I putI placed in many Blogs.The more People that read it the Better. Plus I guess You forget the Addage "Minghag Yisroel Torah" and "Im Lo Neviem Heim Bnei Neviem Heim" anyway I don't know that he would Agree I am just suggesting an answer.

joshwaxman said...

"I putI placed in many Blogs.The more People that read it the Better."
Yachol lihyot. It is always good to spread Torah and Torah discussions. And you give a nice suggestion, even though I don't happen to agree with it.

Minhag Yisrael Torah, but that has a specific place, range and definition. When Ramban worked to abolish the practice of kapparot in Spain, it was an established custom. Yet he judged that it was darkei Emori. Do you think that Ramban did not know, or forgot, that "Minhag Yisrael Torah."

Anyway, perhaps there is a difference between Minhag Yisrael and minhag hakabbalists. To my recollection, I have never attended a lag baOmer bonfire. I might do it this year, since Rabbi Freidman's shul is having one. But my intent will be to have fun, but not chas veshalom any kavvana for deceased tzaddikim.

Kol Tuv,

Anonymous said...

Now I have a Better question. Lhalcha How are the Shul allowed to have Fires Thursday night I have searched High and low maybe you can point me in the right direction. Why is it allowed after all its sefirah Lag baomer is the next day?

joshwaxman said...

I would guess since in most cases the Hebrew day starts at night, so Thursday night is also lag baOmer. Tonight (Wednesday night) we count 32, so tomorrow, Thursday night, we count 33.

According to Menachos 66a,
"Perhaps he should reap by day and bring by day and count by day? Therefore it teaches us {Vayikra 23:15}:
טו וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם, מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת, מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם, אֶת-עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה: שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת, תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה. 15 And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the waving; seven weeks shall there be complete;
When are they complete? When he begins in the evening. How so? Reaping and counting at night, and bringing {as an offering} by day."

Thus, counting for each day begins at nightfall.

According to the My Machberes column in the Jewish Press, "Tradition has given the Rebbes of Boyan the privilege of lighting the major bonfire on the rooftop of the Ohel structure. This usually takes place at 2:00 a.m. on Lag B’Omer morning and is considered the highlight of the celebration."

which is also well before sunrise.

Unless I misunderstood the question, which is possible.

Kol Tuv,

Anonymous said...

The din of Aveilus you need Miktzas HAYOM

joshwaxman said...

i'll see if I can get you an answer. no promises, though.

joshwaxman said...

i thought that might be your question. (assuming you are the same anonymous). I am not sure I'll have time.

A quick search gave this, but it is unsatisfying. One might look up what exactly Igros Moshe says. I have one idea, but won't post unless it pans out.

"The day of Lag Ba’omer brings a suspension or an end (depending on the particular custom) to the mourning period observed during Sefirah. Although normally observance of holidays begin with the previous night, on Lag Ba’omer the laws of mourning are not suspended until the following morning. Therefore, haircuts and shaving should be postponed until the morning (but there is no need to wait until midday). The reason for this is that since Lag Ba’omer is counted as one of the 33 days of mourning, we must partially observe mourning on this day. We then apply the principle of “Miktzas HaYom Kichulo” (part of the day is counted as the whole day). However, HaGaon Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l did permit weddings on the eve of Lag Ba’omer and many follow this ruling (Igros Moshe OC1-159). Although many do not observe mourning after Lag Ba’omer, the custom is not to make weddings until Rosh Chodesh Sivan. Thus weddings held on Lag Ba’omer day must start before nightfall. The music and festivities may continue even after dark (Taz OC 493-2, Igros Moshe EH1-97, and OC 1-159).

The above opinions not withstanding, the prevalent minhag in Klal Yisroel is to light bonfires and rejoice in singing and dancing even on Lag Ba’omer evening."

joshwaxman said...

Also this:

none of this is an answer, of course.

Good question.

Anonymous said...

And by the way Reb Moshe reasoning If I recall corectlly was that Marrige is a Mitzvah so the music is part of it somthing along those lines.

joshwaxman said...

right. there is a partial elaboration at the beyondbt link:
"Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that since attending a wedding is a fulfillment of the mitzva of rejoicing with a bride and groom, and the couple are allowed to get married at times permitted according to their custom, it is permissible to attend a simcha during one’s Sefira mourning period (Responsa Igros Moshe, 1,159; 2,95)."

If the following posting by Gilad Gevaryahu is correct, then it could give some measure of explanation:

Anonymous said...

Boruch Shkivanti from Bt Blog
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that since attending a wedding is a fulfillment of the mitzva of rejoicing with a bride and groom, and the couple are allowed to get married at times permitted according to their custom, it is permissible to attend a simcha during one’s Sefira mourning period (Responsa Igros Moshe, 1,159; 2,95).
So it is still Shver.
What is stranger is the chazan Ish the Brisker Rav all saw this going on under there nose and said anything ?

Anonymous said...

And the other I heard was music is only a minhag-But of course we are talking about music and dancing

joshwaxman said...

To answer, I would really have to learn all the sources, and at a deeper level then I have.

But ultimately, I would feel comfortable going to lag baomer festivities at a shul and hearing music and dancing.

Because when it comes down to it, what is the status of aveilus during sefiras haOmer? It is mideOraysa? mideRabbanan? a post-Talmudic takana? Or a very old, widely accepted minhag? if you look at the way it is discussed (e.g. in Aruch HaShulchan) it *seems* to be the last of these, an old, widely accepted minhag. Which is why there are also different customs of which days to keep and so on. (The dinim of aveilus might be dinim, but the idea that one must keep the aveilus on these days is minhag.)

If so, then the celebrations on the night of lag baOmer is also an old, widely accepted minhag.

If I were establishing the practice right now, there might be questions of how this would clash with the minhag of aveilus. But instead, we have *two* old minhagim, and it is akin (though not exactly) "hem amru behem amru." They are keeping a minhag, and so this is their minhag of practice during sefiras haomer.

(There is a separate question of what the exact practice was on the night of lag baOmer, which is an historical question. In Aruch haShulchan, he mentions just that they said prayers and lit more candles at the kever of Rashbi. But tzarich iyun.)

Even so, I'd be willing to participate. (though I probably will not this year because of busyness.)


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