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Author:  Rager
E-mail:  not available
Date:  7/21/2004 10:15:00 AM
Subject:  On Upshirin and bonfires
Message:  I don't use my real name or address because I don't want poorly constructed hatemail from people like Eli. It's bad enough the Abadis need to put up with it. As for Arik's claim that upshirin and bonfires are authentic Judaism....

(Rabbi - this is long so edit it if you must, but please post it. If people really beelive that bonfires and upshirin are not copied from the non Jews they need to see this)

Bonfires were known in Christian Europe as a way to honor Chirstian saints as far back as the tenth century. They don't appear as a Jewish practice until the 16th century.

The word bonfire comes from "fire of bones." Here's an early quotation (1493): "in worship of Saint John the people woke at home and made all manner of fires. One was clean bones and no wood, and that is called a bone fire." From Marlowe in 1586: "Making bonfires for my overthrow. But, ere I die, those foul idolaters, shall make me bonfires with their filthy bones."

The term became used for any large fires used for celebrations, although the practice and term continued to be used especially for those associated with various Christian saints, particularly John and Peter. From a 1570 history: "Then doth the joyful feast of John the Baptist take his turn, When bonfires great with lofty flame, in every town does burn."

From a constitution of the association of the cooks of Newcastle, 1575: "The said Fellowship of Cooks shall yearly maintain and keep the Bone-fires; that is to say, one Bone-fire on the Even of the Feast of the Nativity of St. John Baptist, and the other on the Even of the Feast of St. Peter the Apostle."

These quotations start in the 15th century, because that is as far back as the term bone-fire goes, but the practice of making a bonfire in honor of christian saints goes back to ancient times in England (and in France as well).

Most Christian scholars say that this practice of celebrating saints with bonfires is traced to pagan, pre-Christian practices, which were later adapted by the local people to Christianity. Indeed, the Celtics made bonfires to honor some of their deities and spirits. No one would ever claim that these Celtic practices, going back into old Anglo-Saxon England, were originally of Jewish origin.

The grave of Sh'muel haNavi has been a "holy" site to the Arabs for hundreds of years, and they built a mosque there called "Nabi Samwil.” As early as the 14th century, Muslimes were making pilgrimages to Nabi Samwil where they made large celebrations with various practices. One interesting practice found in 15th century sources: At Nebi Samwil, the Muslim would cut the hair of their children (which they had let grow from before the pilgrimage), weigh it, and give to charity the same weight in gold or silver for alms. This practices is attested in Arabic sources going back to the 15th century.

Musta’ribim (These were Israeli Jews who were criticized for adapting too many Arabic customs) went along with the Muslims to the grave of Shmuel Hanavi for celebrations, celebrations that, as said above, included haircuts. When a less tolerant Muslim rulers prevented the Mustaribim from going there, they switched to Meron, and took the celebrations and haircuts along.

Is it possible that the custom of bonfires and haircuts arose among the Jews independent from the non-Jewish origins cited above? Theoretically it's possible. Many seforim give all sorts of reasons for these practices. But the problem with these explanations is that (a) they are all of recent origin, and (b) they ignore the fact that both customs were completely unknown to Jews before the 16th century. Furthermore, the first time the upshirin custom appears it is associated with only one group of Jews, the Musta'ribim, about whom other Jews complained that they had adopted a lot of Arab customs (the very name mean "Arabicized).

From 16th century documents documents we learn the Muslims and Musta'ribim were cutting the hair of children at the grave of Shmuel Hanavi At this time, however, it was not done by any of the Ashk'nazi and S'faradi Jews in Israel. (and there were no celebrations at Meron until at least 1570)

We know from travelers to EY in the 18th and 19th centuries that the "hilula" at Meron on Lag Ba'Omer with bonfires and the cutting of children's hair had, by then, become an affair of the masses. A well-known talmid chochom from Europe, R. Avrohom Rozanes, writes that in his visit to Israel in 1867 he saw an Ashk'nazi Jew giving his son a haircut at the "hilula.” R' Rozanes says that he could not restrain himself, and went to that Jew and tried to dissuade him but was unsuccessful; he also wrote that most of the Ashk'nazi and S'faradi Jews of Israel were participating in this "insanity," with "drinking and dancing and fires."

A chasidish rebbe, R. Yehudah Leibush Horenstein, who emigrated to Israel in the middle of the 19th century writes that "this haircut, called halaqe, is done by the S'faradim in Yerushalayim at the qever of RaShB'Y during the summer, but during the winter they take the boy to the synagogue or Bet Medrash and perform the haircut with great celebration and parties, something that is unknown to the Jews in Europe.”

Indeed, the custom was adopted shortly thereafter by chasidim in Europe to imitate the custom of the S' faradim in EY, (in the same way they changed the nusach, as an attempt to distance themselves from the establishment non-hassidim.) Chasidic communities in Europe also adopted the custom of lighting bonfires on Lag Ba’Omer at around that time.

The Jews in Europe, knowing no Arabic and having no Yiddish name for the custom of the haircut, called it by a normal Yiddish word for cutting off the hair: opsheren. [The very fact that the custom has a Yiddish name, and no Hebrew name, should serve as proof that this was something new.]

The custom is less than 150 years old among Ashk'naz Jews, including chasidim. Now we scarcely can expect to find a historical document that says "we, the undersigned Jews, have decided that there is nothing wrong with copying the Christian bonfire, and the Muslim haircut to honor saints, and we will participate in them." So you're never going to find better historical evidence for Jewish borrowing of non-Jewish customs than this: a custom that was previously unknown to any group of Jews arose in a time and place where the custom was already found according to independent evidence.

Moreover, the upshirin first arose among a group of Jews (the Mustarabim) who were KNOWN for copying Muslin practices.

Reply:  I hope someone out there uses all these posts for a great school report on Judaism. There is alot of information coming through, albeit with some negativity, but they don't mean it.

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