Picnics, Bonfires & Mysticism too
By Mark Mietkiewicz
How can one day remind us of Judaism’s links to mysticism? Be a time to mourn and a time to dance? And also be an Israeli pilgrimage that is reminiscent at times of Woodstock? Lag Ba’Omer is all of those things. The seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot is a time of semi-mourning but on the 33rd day, Lag Ba’Omer weddings are permitted and the day is celebrated with bonfires, parties and haircuts. Lag Ba’Omer falls on Sunday, May 2.
If Lag Ba’Omer is identified with one person, then it must be Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon was a student of Rabbi Akiva whose 24,000 students perished during the Roman conquest of Jerusalem 1,900 years ago because, as the Talmud tells us, “they did not show proper respect for each other.” [bit.ly/omer18] Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was one of the very few scholars to survive. The Aish Hatorah website explains how Rabbi Shimon and his son sought refuge and studied Torah in a cave for 12 years. Rabbi Shimon is believed to have died on Lag Ba’Omer but just before his death he revealed the Zohar, Judaism’s great Kabbalistic work to his students. Because of his legacy, Rabbi Shimon’s yahrzeit has become a day of celebration. [bit.ly/omer19]
One of the most popular Lag Ba’Omer traditions is to light bonfires. The Ohr Somayach site explains why. “On the day of Rabbi Shimon’s passing, a great light was revealed to his students when he uncovered many of the hidden secrets of the Torah. This was written down in the Zohar (lit. ‘shining’). The bonfires symbolize the light of the hidden wisdom that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai revealed on Lag Ba’Omer.” [bit.ly/omer20]
Some of the biggest bonfires take place in Meron, a small town in northern Israel. Meron is also believed to be the burial place of Rabbi Shimon, so every year it becomes the focus of a mass pilgrimage as tens of thousands of Jews come to celebrate, dance and even do a little business. Here’s how Judith Fein describes her visit. “Was this Meron or Woodstock? … The town was like an Orthodox carnival. From makeshift booths, vendors sold crafts, religious objects, clothes, books, dates, nuts, and soft drinks. Families camped out in tents. Men with long beards asked for charity or offered blessings. According to tradition, if a couple cannot conceive a child, on Lag Ba’Omer, the man distributes drinks until he has served 18 bottles of wine to cure the barrenness. In the street, young men pressed glasses of wine on us. We drank, of course. It would be rude not to honor their desire for children.” [bit.ly/omer21] You can find another account of the trip to Meron at the Shema Yisrael site. [bit.ly/omer22]
And as you ponder how to mark the day, you can peek in to dozens of videos of Lag Ba’Omer bonfires and celebrations, too. [bit.ly/omer23]
There are several great Lag Ba’Omer sites aimed at kids such as the one from Jewish Theological Seminary. In addition to the history of the day, there are rabbinic tales and essays to spark discussions. [bit.ly/omer28] Over at Orthodox Union, there are links to a Lag Ba’Omer poem and an explanation of why the day is associated with playing bows and arrows. [bit.ly/omer25]
For most Israelis, Lag Ba’Omer is a great day to get out, have a picnic and throw a few potatoes on the fire. Joni Schockett’s menu is a bit more exotic. It includes Stuffed Grape Leaves and Focaccia with Tomatoes, Feta and Garlic. [bit.ly/omer29] Daniel Rogov’s picnic boasts Spinach Salad with Honey and Oranges followed by Chicken and Artichoke Salad topped off by Arak Cookies. [bit.ly/omer30] And then there’s a Mediterranean Lag Ba’Omer menu with Sangria, Chilled Almond Soup with Grapes, Broiled Chicken with Garlic Sauce and more. [bit.ly/omer31]
While you’re feasting at your picnic, why not break into a rendition of traditional tune? Lag Ba’Omer songs may not be as famous as Pesach or Purim melodies but they do exist. So, if you really want to impress the folks over at the next bonfire, brush up on holiday songs from Tunisia, Greece, Iraq and Galicia. [bit.ly/omer32]
Mark Mietkiewicz is a Toronto-based Internet producer who writes, lectures and teaches about the Jewish Internet.