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Lag Ba'Omer

Lag BaOmer is a minor, festive holiday that falls on the 33rd day of the seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot, a period of time is known as the Omer. (The numerical value of the Hebrew letter lamed is 30, and the value of gimel is three; lamed and gimel together are pronounced “lahg.”)

This holiday gives us a break from the semi-mourning restrictions (no parties or events with music, no weddings, no haircuts) that are customarily in place for some Jewish communities during the Omer.

The Omer has both agricultural and spiritual significance: it marks both the spring cycle of planting and harvest, and the Israelites’ journey out of slavery in Egypt (Passover) and toward receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai (Shavuot).

An omer (“sheaf”) is an ancient Hebrew measure of grain. Biblical law forbade any use of the new barley crop until after an omer was brought as an offering to the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Book of Leviticus (23:15-16) also commanded:

“And from the day on which you bring the offering…you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete.” This commandment led to the practice of the S’firat HaOmer, or the 49 days of the "Counting of the Omer,” which begins on the second day of Passover and ends with the celebration of Shavuot on the 50th day.

Lag BaOmer commemorates a variety of historical events, including the end of a plague that killed many students of Rabbi Akiva (c. 50-135 C.E.), the yahrzeit of second-century mystical scholar Shimon bar Yochai, and a Jewish military victory over Roman forces in 66 C.E. In remembrance of these events, some people celebrate with picnics and bonfires. Many couples in Israel choose to get married on Lag BaOmer, and many people also choose to wait until that day to get a haircut or beard trim.

 

Celebration

Meron from above during the Lag BaOmer hillula (Photo courtesy of Sky High)

Is the holiday we celebrate the yahrtzeit (the anniversary of someone's death) of rabbi shimon bar yochai, who authored the zohar. On the day of his passing, Rabbi Shimon instructed his disciples to mark the date as “the day of my joy.”

The chassidic masters explain that the final day of a righteous person’s earthly life marks the point at which all their deeds, teachings and work achieve their culminating perfection and the zenith of their impact upon our lives. So each Lag BaOmer, we celebrate Rabbi Shimon’s life and the revelation of the soul of Torah.

Lag Ba'Omer also commemorates another joyous event. The Talmud relates that in the weeks between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot, a plague raged among the disciples of the great sage Rabbi Akiva (teacher of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai), “because they did not act respectfully towards each other.”

These weeks are therefore observed as a period of mourning, with various joyous activities proscribed by law and custom. On Lag Ba'Omer the deaths ceased. Thus, Lag BaOmer also carries the theme of loving and respecting one’s fellow (ahavat Yisrael).

The custom of lighting bonfires is symbolic of the great light the zohar gave to the world. There is a custom to play with bow and arrows to symbolize that the Rashbi was so righteous that his generation did not rely on the rainbow to be spared from punishment, his merit alone protected them. There is also a custom to eat carrobs, since hashem made them sprout outside his cave where he studied to sustain him. 

The mourning practices of the Omer period (see above) are lifted for this day. As a result:

Music is playing and people are singing and dancing with abandon; Little boys who turned three during the Omer period but did not have their first haircut (upsheren) due to the mourning laws, have them today, often at Meron; Weddings are held.

 

Study

If Rabbi Akiva is the exemplar of the need for unity, his student Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai continues teaching the importance of this message, perhaps even expanding it to our relations with the non-Jewish society around us.

"Rav Yehuda said, 'How beautiful are the works of these [Roman] people! They made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths...' Rav Shimon bar Yochai answered and said, 'All that they made they made for themselves; they built marketplaces, to set harlots in them; baths, to rejuvenate themselves; bridges, to levy tolls for them'" (Shabbat 33b).

Upon hearing this, the Romans decided to kill Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who escaped to a cave--emerging only after 12 years, when the Caesar died and the decree lifted (which, according to some, was on Lag BaOmer). Yet, after 12 years in a cave studying Torah, he (and his son) were not able to adjust to living in society with others. They were shocked to see people farming the land. "Whatever they cast their eyes upon was immediately burnt up. Thereupon, a Heavenly Echo came forth and cried out, 'Have you emerged to destroy My world? Return to your cave!' They did so for 12 months, saying the punishment of the evil ones is Gehinom is 12 months".

After 13 years, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai understood that the greater one is in Torah, the greater understanding one must have towards working folk. They are the ones who ensure the operation of the world. Only one who is "evil" would dare destroy what the people have built. The language of the Talmud is unmistakable. Rav Shimon bar Yochai understood his actions were evil, and he (and his son) had to suffer 12 more months alone in a cave. 

It could very well be that not only was his critique of the "farmers" inappropriate; so, too, was his mocking of the Romans. They built wonderful cities, regardless of their intent - even as they persecuted the Jews.

 

Learning

Sefirat ha'Omer in general, and Lag ba'Omer specifically, are meant to bring people together. And that is worthy of celebration because it considered as a Malchit shel chesed, a kingdom of kindness, and Ahavat Yisrael (loving and respecting one’s fellow).

 
Wed, September 30 2020 12 Tishrei 5781