Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
This Thursday, May 23rd, we are celebrating Lag B’omer. It is a minor holiday that occurs on the 33rd day of the Omer, the 49-day period between Passover and Shavuot. In fact, Lag B’omer literally means the 33rd day of the Omer.
The Omer period is a time of semi-mourning when, among other signs of grief, weddings and some celebrations are forbidden, and we abstain from cutting our hair. The traditional explanation for these practices comes from the Talmud, which tells us that during this season a plague killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva‘s students because they did not treat one another respectfully. We mourn as we remember those students and their severe punishment. Since the plague ceased on Lag B’omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, Lag B’omer became a happy day, interrupting the sadness of the Omer period for 24 hours.
Scholars believe that the Talmudic explanation alludes to a historical event. The great sage Rabbi Akiva became a public supporter of Simeon bar Koseva, known popularly as Bar Kochba. Bar Kochba was the leader of the big revolt against the Roman rule in Judea in 132 CE. It is likely that Rabbi Akiva not only supported Bar Kochva but also believed that he was the long-awaited Messiah. Many of Rabbi Akiva’s students joined him in backing the revolt and were killed along with thousands of Judeans when the revolt failed. The Talmudic rabbis, still suffering under Roman rule, may have been referring to those deaths when they spoke of a plague among Akiva’s students. Perhaps Lag B’omer marked a pause in the battle or a momentary victory.
There is another reason why we celebrate Lag B’omer. It has to do with Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, one of the few disciples of Rabbi Akiva who survived the Bar Kochba revolt. Rabbi Simeon continued to challenge the Romans after Bar Kochba’s defeat. He had to escape and spend years in hiding. There are midrashim about him and his son Eleazar miraculously surviving in a cave for 12 years, while spending their days studying and praying. Tradition attributed to him the authorship of the Zohar, a crucial work of the Kabbalah. According to tradition, he died on Lag B’omer. On the day of his death, Rabbi Shimon told his disciples to mark the date as “the day of my joy.” In Israel, on Lag B’omer, people flock to his tomb in Meron, near Safed, where they light bonfires and sing kabbalistic hymns.
As you can see, the origins of Lag B’omer are not certain. The fact that we have different reasons for celebrating Lag B’omer adds to the confusion. Still, Lag B’omer has become a very popular minor festival in modern times, especially in Israel. During this day children picnic and play outdoors with bows and arrows — a possible reminder of the war battles of Rabbi Akiva’s students. I still remember making homemade bow and arrows at school and playing with them during Lag B’omer!
It is customary to light bonfires, to symbolize the light Simeon bar Yohai brought into the world (there are other explanations for the fire as well). People sing and dance around the bonfires. Finally, since the mourning customs are lifted on this day, numerous couples wed at this happy time. In addition , people get haircuts on Lag B’omer, for this same reason.
Since Lag B’omer usually falls at the end of the school year and right after the Jewish Food Festival, it is hard to gather volunteers to organize a Lag B’omer celebration at Temple Beth El. It would be so nice to have a bonfire, food, music and singing for Lag B’omer! If you are reading these lines and would like to help organize a Lag B’omer celebration next year, please let me know!