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On El Ghriba

Lag Baomer is one of those Jewish traditions that I’d be very interested to know whether anyone of you celebrated it in your youth, or rather, as I suspect, it has come to prominence only in the last few years in this generation.

Lag baomer is the 33rd day of the Omer, so we are about two thirds of our way through from Pesach to Shavuot. In Israel the festival is celebrated with roaring bonfires and bows and arrows, although obviously everything is somewhat muted this year. It’s also traditional here to make trips into nature, and to celebrate the hillula or yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, said to be the author of the Zohar, with a pilgrimage to Mount Meron, outside of Safed, for wild celebrations.

Such a pilgrimage has never caught my fancy, but I do intend one year to spend Lag baomer in El ghriba, Africa’s oldest synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba. If the world is travelling again by then, you’d be very welcome to join me there this time next year. There the festivities celebrate not just Shimon bar Yochai but also the miraculous rabbi, Meir Baal HaNess, and the marvellous one, El Ghriba, herself.

Who is this mysterious El Ghriba? It is said that a pious and beautiful woman who lived alone, died at home as the result of a lag baomer fire. And although her house burned down, her body was untouched and the community put this down to her saintliness, that she was a tzaddik. El Ghriba was buried next to the synagogue, from where it took its name.

The island of Djerba once had a Jewish community 100,000 strong, all cohanim, their ancestors were said to have left jerusalem when the babylonians destroyed the first temple. Now there are maybe 1000 left on the island, but they remain a tight-knit community on good terms with their Muslim neighbours. And on a typical lag baomer, thousands of exiled tunes will descend on el Ghriba and the other surviving synagogues to continue the traditional celebrations.

So while you may not think much about Lag baomer, and it may not have roots much before the Kabbalists of the sixteenth century, the festival adds a spark of colour to our jewish calendar. Shimon bar Yochai, of course, is the rabbi who survived lockdown - in a cave with his son, studying Torah together naked but covered up to their heads in sand. I’m sure some of you are getting to the point of the SINGAPORE circuit breaker where you might consider the advantages of doing the same.

Keep counting the days, and we will see each other next lag baomer in Djerba, living the dream!

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