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ACUTE ANGLES Fireworks – A Jewish Perspective

Dear Rabbi.  My kids are yugging me again this year to shlep them to see the new year’s eve fireworks over the Sydney Harbour. I hate it! Is it just me, or is there something not quite Jewish about fireworks?  Interested to have your input.   Yael.

 Dear Yael,

First of all, let me make it clear that this is not a halacha forum but rather purports to give a Jewish ideological perspective on trenchant issues.  If you are looking for a psak (ruling), consult your local Orthodox rabbi! I can tell you however that Rabbi J. David Bleich, a leading halakhist associated with Yeshiva University, put it this way: You could be doing something productive with your time rather than sitting on a roof watching siss, boom and bah!

Last Yom Atsmaut (Independence Day), many (secular) municipalities in Israel dramatically broke with ‘tradition’ and scrapped fireworks. Even the main national ceremony on Mt. Herzl did away with the normal shebang, opting instead for what the organisers euphemistically called “quiet pyrotechnics”. In Tel Aviv, cafes and bars were again packed following the Covid shut-downs and street parties abounded.  But there were no fireworks.

One reason given was that many Israeli war veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and many of these veterans as well as the families of those with disabilities petitioned for fireworks displays to be cancelled. The booms of fireworks at the end of Memorial Day (which immediately precedes Yom Atsmaut) actually make some veterans feel they are back in the very war situations that triggered their trauma. This, together with the fact that fireworks had already ben cancelled during the two years of the pandemic, made for a new reality. Now municipalities in Israel are being challenged by the public to justify themselves if they do organise fireworks rather than if they don’t!

I am proud that Israel is in the vanguard of the move away from firework displays.  Of course when I was a child (and, like almost every other kid in the UK, looked forward to Guy Fawkes night when the country celebrates the botched attempt to blow up Parliament with gunpowder – it could only happen in Britain!) every Joe Blow was able to purchase fireworks and let them off freely in his own back garden oblivious to the dangers. Could be, this is still the case in the Old Dart..  However in no state in Australia can fireworks be set off now without a license,  And even in the USA, the land of civil liberties, some states have banned the private purchase of fireworks.   The tide is turning!

What is the Torah view of fireworks? Here’s what appears on the Arachim (Jewish outreach movement) site:-

 Regardless of the country, Independence Day celebrations [and New Year celebrations – my addition] are generally huge public events complete with …fireworks and all the rest … These mass events ..follow in the Hellenistic tradition. In marked contrast to these stands the celebration of Jewish independence won by the Maccabees; small candles in the window or alongside the door … Our celebration of Chanuka is ever so typical of the way of the Torah.   Judaism recognises that while the individual may be influenced  momentarily by a big show, this doesn’t last.  The fireworks  disappear quickly leaving behind only a trail of smoke

There we have it in a nutshell. Perhaps it is even superfluous to allude also to the murky, macabre, pagan origin of many fireworks not to mention the historic use of gunpowder in warfare.  We have mentioned the possible traumatic effect of their sonic booms on vulnerable people; birds and animals, domestic or wild, can also be frightened by their noise leading to them fleeing often into danger or injuring themselves in an attempt to escape the perceived threat,

However, perhaps the most significant negative fallout of fireworks for our environment-sensitive age is the toxic pollution they cause.  Their smoke and dust may contain residues of heavy-metal, sulphur-coal compounds and toxic chemicals which can hurt fish  and other water-life and could pollute drinking-water supplies. Those with respiratory health issues will very likely see their condition aggravated through exposure to the smoke from fireworks.

With modern humankind’s concern for the environment – and of course it should be a Jewish concern too –  I believe it is only a matter of time before the gargantuan firework displays of New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July are things of the past.  It is particularly regrettable that in their zeal to attract as many children – and their yugged parents – to their events as possible, some Chabad centres make firework displays the principal feature of their Chanuka events, in so doing turning the meaning of Chanuka on its head! (Not to mention all that money going up in smoke which could be funding the Jewish education of a needy child for at least a year!)  Let us hope that they, and indeed we all, will take due cognizance of the welcome new trend, and in particular gain inspiration from trailblazing Israel’s volte-face away from public firework displays. Certainly in view of the gross environmental fallout in particular, the need to drastically curb firework displays really isn’t rocket science!

 Do you have a question for Acute Angles?  If so, email me at judaim@bigpond.net.au

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. He can be reached at judaim@bigpond.net.au