Religion & Beliefs

7 Reasons Why Lag B’Omer is the Jewish Burning Man

Bonfires? Weirdly esoteric? Check! Read More

By / May 3, 2018

Today is Lag B’Omer, the most baffling holiday on the Jewish calendar. But if you stop and think about it, it’s similar to a modern, secular holiday: Burning Man. Think about it, it’s a rollicking good time, but few people actually bother to observe it. But the similarities don’t stop there. Squint (there’s smoke in your eyes, after all), and these are the ways the lines between Lag B’Omer and Burning Man start to blur:

  1. Bonfires (Duh)— Isn’t it getting a bit warm for a big fire? Maybe, but that doesn’t stop either celebration (just do it at night)! Plus, Burning Man ends with the immolation of a giant effigy, and in Israel, burning effigies of enemies to the Jewish people is also popular.
  2. Music— For observant Jews, live music is forbidden during the Omer, and the ban is lifted on Lag B’Omer. So of course people go all out— concerts, dancing, guitars by the bonfire, you name it! Burning Man also has lots of musical elements; for example, this year’s festival in August will feature a musical robot that creates tunes based on the weather. Really.
  3. Pagan roots— Burning Man takes its central ritual from the ancient druid rite of the wicker man (not to be confused with either film). As for Lag B’Omer, like all Jewish rituals, we try to ignore its pre-Jewish roots. But ask someone what’s up with the bows and arrows, and fires, and the significance of the day (something something plague! something something Roman revolt!), and it never quite adds up. Seriously, look at the Wikipedia edit history for the festival to see a lot of discussion of paganism that got cut out.
  4. Self-sufficiency— Get out there, Jewish child, and try out this bow and arrow! Maybe play a sport! Have a barbecue; everything we need is here! As for the Nevada festival, the you have to live in the dessert as a community, with its own supplies and economy.
  5. Tribalism— For the Jews, this needs no elaboration. For Burning Man, have you ever met a Burner? They are a people unto themselves (with lots of tiny camps/factions, of course).
  6. They are super-trippy— Lag B’Omer is a highly kabbalistic holiday, the type of spirituality that can feel a bit like drugs. As for Burning Man, there are just scads of literal drugs. (Plus, come on— you know someone, somewhere has shown up to a Lag B’Omer celebration on acid.)
  7. None of it makes any sense— Perhaps the polite term would be that both celebrations have strong enigmatic elements. Really, they’re both super hard to explain, and really have to be experienced rather than rationalized.

For what it’s worth Israel’s version of Burning Man, Midburn (a pun on Midbar, which means wildnerness), takes place in the Negev in less than a fortnight, ending as Shavuot begins. Missed opportunity, Israeli burners! Or, consider today your warmup—a literal one, since, once again, the common thread here is fire.

Photo of Burning Man, 2009 by Mindaugas Danys, via Flickr.