Monday and Tuesday, May 8-9, brings one of the oddest holidays of the Jewish year.
Lots of people can tell you that Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day of the counting of the omer (didn’t you know?), but not many have a clear idea about why that is significant or how it came to be a holy day. The story behind Lag B’Omer is one of Judaism’s best tales of transformation, growth and adaptation.
Lag B’Omer has been called the Jewish May Day because many of its traditions – particularly outdoor games and bonfires – are associated with spring and new life.
The word “Lag” isn’t really a word. It’s a number. In Hebrew, letters have numeric values. Lamed is 30 and gimmel is three. Put them together and you get 33. Thus, Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day of the omer.
But, what is “the omer”? Really, it should be called fully “The counting of the omer,” the 49-day period from Passover to Shavuot, during which the Torah instructs us to count the days and weeks. The commandment is actually in this week’s Torah portion, Emor:
From the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering – the day after the sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete. You must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to Adonai. (Leviticus 23:15-16)
Originally, the counting of the omer was an agricultural practice. It was about the length of time between two harvests. However, Rabbinic Judaism gave Shavuot added meaning; it became not just a harvest holiday, as it is described in the Torah, but also the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
That shift also prompted a new possibility for the counting of the omer. The seven weeks became a transition from Passover, the time of our freedom, to Shavuot, the time of the giving of the Torah. Neither holiday is complete without the other – just as freedom is meaningless without rules to live by, and laws are tyrannical if we do not have the freedom to choose to obey them. The counting of the omer ties the two holidays, and the two ideas, together.
But, wait, there’s more. The Talmud tells a story that says that Rabbi Akiva, who lived in the second century B.C.E., had 24,000 students who died one year during the counting of the omer:
Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students from Gevat to Antipatris and they all died in one period of time, because they did not treat each other with respect .… It is taught that all of them died in the period from Passover until Shavuot. Rav Chama bar Abba said, and some say it was Rabbi Chiyya bar Avin: They all died a bad death. (B. Yevamot 62b)
The origins of this legend may be connected to the Bar Kokhba Rebellion, a Jewish revolt against the Romans in the second century, which was championed by Rabbi Akiva, but which was a military disaster for the Jews. Because of the “bad death” of Rabbi Akiva’s students, a tradition developed of treating the omer period as a time of semi-mourning.
But seven weeks is a long time to practice mourning when the world is growing lush and green, so a tradition arose at some point to suspend the mourning restrictions on the 33rd day of the omer. Lag B’Omer became a day for weddings and for children to get their first haircuts, activities that are not permitted during mourning.
Our earliest text regarding the special status of the 33rd day of the omer appears in the late 13th century:
There is a received tradition from the Geonim [rabbinic authorities of the early middle ages] that on the 33rd day of the Omer, the deaths stopped ... and we also have the custom not to get married from Passover until this time. (Menachem ben Solomon Meiri)
One of Rabbi Akiva’s surviving students, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, is also deeply connected to Lag B’Omer. According to the Talmud, Rabbi Shimon lived in a cave for many years to hide from the Romans and to continue the study of Torah. According to tradition, he survived through those years on the fruit of a nearby carob tree. A legend says that students would come to his cave in the woods carrying bows and arrows, pretending to be hunting, to allay the suspicions of the Romans.
This appears to be the origin of the medieval custom of children playing outdoor games – particularly with bows and arrows – on Lag B’Omer. In this way, the day took on the meaning of playful defiance against an evil authority. But the holiday kept changing after this, and adopted even more new associations and beliefs.
The Zohar, Judaism’s greatest mystical text, tells the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s adventures as the leader of a group of second-century mystical rabbis called the Hevraya (“Companions”). In one of the Zohar’s most famous stories, Rabbi Shimon makes his final revelation on the day he died, Lag B’Omer:
On the day that Rabbi Shimon was to leave the world, while he was arranging his affairs, the Companions assembled at his house .… While they were sitting, Rabbi Shimon opened his eyes and saw what he saw: fire whirled through the house .… He rose and laughed in delight .… Rabbi Shimon said, “Now is a time of favor. I want to enter without shame into the world that is coming. Holy words, until now unrevealed .… (Zohar, Idra Zuta)
In his revelation, Rabbi Shimon describes how the true nature of God, which he calls “The Holy Ancient One” and “The High Spark,” is concealed and hidden from human perception, knowledge and understanding. What we perceive of God and the divine qualities is really just the “Garments of the King.” If we were able to truly experience the High Spark, we would realize that it is the only thing that exists.
Rabbi Shimon called the day of his death “my wedding day” and asked the Companions to celebrate it as the day of his greatest revelation. The Zohar describes the death of Rabbi Shimon:
All day long, the fire in the house did not go out. No one reached him; no one could. Light and fire surrounded him. All day long, I lay on the ground and wailed. After the fire disappeared, I saw [Rabbi Shimon] leaving the world, enwrapped, lying on his side, his face smiling .… (Zohar, Idra Zuta)
According to tradition, Rabbi Shimon was buried in the cave where he had lived in isolation. To this day, hundreds of thousands of people travel to Meron, in the north of Israel, to celebrate the Yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on Lag B’Omer, his yahrzeit. It attracts Jews, especially followers of Hasidism and Kabbalah, from all over the world. It is the largest celebratory gathering in Israel every year.
This is the origin of the bonfires that are now the most well-known symbol of Lag B’Omer. Those outdoor fires are more than just a lovely thing to do on a crisp spring evening – they evoke the memory of Rabbi Shimon’s final revelation. They also represent the further transformation of the holiday into a celebration of mystical exploration and the intense fire of our yearning for the divine.
It is hardly surprising that there is confusion about Lag B’Omer and its meaning – it has had so many. It is a day for noticing the transition from early spring into a time of lush greenery. It is a day for considering the relationship between freedom and law. It is a day for release from mourning into celebration. It is a day for exploring the deepest realms of our relationship to God and the divine within us.
Happy Lag B’Omer!
RABBI JEFFREY GOLDWASSER is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai, in Cranston.