When preparing for this year's Lag BaOmer picnic and bonfire, in between making the pasta salad and packing the paper goods, I wondered, "What does this have to do with Lag BaOmer?"
I live in south Florida, where dining al fresco is a year-round affair. We don't need the impetus of a holiday to bring out the wicker basket and checkered blanket. Even so, gathering with friends and family around a bonfire (or at least firing up a grill) makes Lag BaOmer picnics extra-ordinarily special.
While there are many unusual customs for Lag BaOmer, most of which are rooted in Jewish mysticism, building a bonfire to commemorate the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is probably the most widespread.
Rabbi Shimon, who lived in Israel in the second century CE, fled from the Romans who wanted to execute him for criticizing the Roman government. Along with his son, Rabbi Elazar, the duo lived in a cave and learned Torah for 12 years, uncovering the secrets of the Zohar which became the landmark text of Jewish mysticism. Upon emerging from the cave, whatever mundane activities their eyes beheld would be destroyed by a mystically fueled fire, causing the rabbis to return to their hideaway for an additional 12-month 'cooling period' before mainstreaming into the world.
As Torah is compared to fire and light, the custom to build a bonfire honors the spiritual "light" Rabbi Shimon's Torah teachings brought to the world. Since he died on Lag BaOmer, there is a Jewish custom to light, not just one candle, but many, and to build bonfires as a tribute to the "light" of Torah he created.
While roasting hot dogs and s'mores are natural bonfire activities, I like to do things a little differently on Lag BaOmer. Instead of marshmallows, I bring out the fruit. Skewering chunks of nut-coated pineapple, bananas and oranges, which we toast over the fire, is a wonderful way to savor a delightful and healthy dessert. Perfect for simple backyard meals all summer long (just grill the kabobs instead of roasting them), if you love the outdoors, this will be a recipe you'll turn too again and again.
Enjoy these great videos from last years Lag BaOmer festivities in Meiron: