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Lag B'Omer

Noga and Etti screamed with delight at the sight of the bonfires all over the city. The people were celebrating Lag B’Omer.

Singing and dancing round the leaping flames, the revellers looked like dark spirits making incantations to the powers that control the forces bringing down joy and sadness to the world.

We drove from one conflagration to the next, traversing all the neighborhoods where the devotees of God lived. A big red fire engine blocked our path and an ambulance had pulled up to carry scorched individuals who had come too close for comfort.

The biggest bonfire, everybody knew, was in Meron, at the tomb of the leader of Jewish mysticism, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

In the year 135 he had lived in a cave, teaching Torah to pupils who defended themselves with bows and arrows against Roman soldiers, sent by the emperor to apprehend and kill any person studying the Jewish holy book.

Bonfires were kindled on the hill around the secret school, warning of the approach of soldiers.

Every year, as part of the Day of atonement prayers, Jews recount the gruesome deaths of ten leaders, captured by the Romans.

The description takes the form of a poem, known as Eleh Ezkerah (these are the ones I will remember)

The poem lists the first two to be executed: Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha ha-Kohen Gadol.

Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel was beheaded, and while Rabbi Yishmael grieved, weeping over his severed head, the Roman ruler's daughter coveted Rabbi Yishmael for his physical beauty. When she was told that he would have to be executed as well, she asked that the skin of his head be flayed while he was alive, so she could stuff the skin and look at his face.

When the servants began to strip away the skin on the forehead where the phylactery is placed, Yishmael cried aloud and died.

Next to die was Rabbi Akiva, whose skin was raked with iron combs. Despite the pain consuming him, he was still able to proclaim God's providence in the world by reciting the Shema, drawing out the final Echad - "One".

The next sage martyred was Rabbi Haninah ben Teradion, who was wrapped in a Torah scroll and burned alive. Wet sponges of wool were placed on his chest to ensure he would not die quickly. When he was being burnt, he told his students that he could see the letters of the sacred Torah "flying up" to heaven.

The festival is the celebration of victory of Torah study over the forces of darkness and evil that seek to extinguish it. The victory of light over darkness.

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