Lag B’Omer is a minor but joyous holiday celebrated on the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer, which begins on the second day of Passover and ends on Shavuot. “Lag” is a combination of two Hebrew letters: “lam’ed” and “gimmel.” According to Hebrew numerology, lamed stands for the number 30 and gimmel stands for the number three. This year, Lag B’Omer is celebrated on Sunday, April 28 (beginning the previous evening).
There are various explanations given for the celebration of Lag B’Omer. The Talmud mentions a plague that is believed to have killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students during one Omer. It is believed that the plague abated on the 33rd day of the Omer – hence the cause for celebration. It is also thought that Lag B’Omer is connected to Rabbi Akiva’s support of Simon Bar Kochba, the Jewish rebel leader against Rome. The Romans responded to Bar Kochba’s revolt with incredible brutality, but perhaps Lag B’Omer was a day when either the Jews won a victory or there was a brief respite from the violence. (Ultimately, Bar Kochba’s rebellion failed.) The military connection is supported by the Lag B’Omer tradition of taking children to open fields to play with toy bows and arrows.
While the Counting of the Omer is considered a period of mourning, Lag B’Omer is a day of happiness during which people are allowed to celebrate. Thus, on Lag B’Omer it is permitted to take haircuts, listen to music, hold weddings, etc. In addition, children are taken to parks to play and people often gather for large bonfires.
Lag B’Omer also corresponds to the date of the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, one of the great sages from the era of the Mishna and author of the Kabbalistic text, the Zohar. Although the death of a great sage is usually not marked with rejoicing, it is said that on the day Rabbi Shimon passed away, a great light of endless joy filled the day, because of the secret wisdom he revealed to his students. The happiness on that day was to him and his students like that of a groom while standing under the canopy at his wedding.
Our Rabbis Respond
What is the significance of Lag B’Omer today?
As Lag B’Omer approaches, we noticed that there were not too many events to mark the holiday scheduled around Connecticut. And so, with the holiday seeming to be slipping off the Jewish calendar over the last few years, we asked rabbis from all around the state to offer Ledger readers a fresh look at Lag B’Omer. Here is what several had to say.
Rabbi Gary J. Lavit
Board Certified Chaplain
Hebrew Health Care
Lag B’Omer — the 33rd day of the count between Passover and Shavuot — is an island of celebration in the middle of a period of partial mourning. The Talmud reports that 12,000 pairs of students, disciples of Rabbi Akiva, died during this period through a plague that was suspended on this day. Hence the restriction on celebrations during this time of year, and the replacement of the restrictions with celebrations on this day.Why the plague? The rabbis of the period tell us that the plague was divine punishment of these students for the reason of their disrespectful behavior toward each other. As disciples of the greatest sage of that time, these students would have been the teachers and role models of the next generation. Religious leaders teach not only by text, but also by example. The “Torah” which they would transmit would include the character traits that they personally exemplify. A “Torah” which includes disrespect for one’s fellows is a Torah that is fatally flawed — not the Torah by which God wants us to live. Such a character trait is just as disqualifying as any defect in the calligraphy of a Torah scroll itself. The plague served to prevent such a defective Torah from being transmitted.Today, our people have taken on a variety of ways of practicing Judaism. Some of these ways of some Jews are philosophically unacceptable to other Jews. No sub-group can demand that others conform to its ways. But all members of the faith, from the most pious to the most secular, need to remember that we never have the right to be disrespectful of each other. Especially the pious need to remember that disrespect disqualifies whatever Torah we try to transmit. Disrespect can never be part of the Living Torah of our character.
Rabbi David Small
The Emanuel Synagogue
To me, Lag B’Omer is a celebration of the outdoors. When I was growing up in Kansas City, the Jewish community held a big Lag B’Omer picnic in a large public park. We ran races, played games and had fun. Much of Hebrew school was indoors and involved sitting at desks, so this was a thrill! I felt good that being Jewish also meant being active outdoors and playing games. This same lesson was amplified over many years at Camp Ramah. In Israel, as a student, I witnessed bonfires on the eve of Lag B’Omer. For days ahead of time, neighborhood children would collect branches and begin to pile them up at central areas. That night, the fires were lit and people gathered, singing hymns of “Bar Yokhai” — Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, who was a leader of the Jewish people during the Roman period. It was a mystical evening and gave me chills to experience it. From the neighborhood of Givat Shaul, one could look out and see other bonfires reaching towards the sky all over the city.
Sefira is a seven-week stretch of counting, from one festival (Pesach) to another (Shavuoth). Lag B’Omer is a break from the routine, a time for fun, and a time for reflection and to engage our yearning for something beyond the here and now.
Rabbi Seth Daniel Riemer
Temple Beth Torah
On the first day after Passover vacation, my students at the Jewish High School of Connecticut, where I teach humanities and theater, immediately noticed my Omer beard and commented cheerfully on it. Several knew why I (who normally go clean-shaven) was wearing it and what it’s for. A couple of them asked, “Will you keep it till Shavuot or cut it off at Lag B’Omer?” I disappointed by answering that I plan to cut it off at Lag B’Omer. I joked that it has super-hero properties: one glance from my magic Omer beard will mesmerize wayward students into obedience. So why get rid of it? I like the temporariness of this seasonal intensification of fear and hope. The Omer period is about watching and worrying while the grain crop, transitioning from barley to wheat in Eretz Yisra’el, readies under a burgeoning spring-to-summer sun. Lag B’Omer is a break in that tense, anxious time. Our lives in this electronically geared, technologically obsessed world are tense and anxious, and we need a break from all that stress. But breaks are by nature temporary. Lag B’Omer (perhaps like Shabbat?) tells us to enjoy the break before returning to face the tension and anxiety, which aren’t going away any time soon.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adler
Beth David Synagogue
Lag B’Omer is a date that has never held a position of primacy on the Jewish calendar. It is a day marked more by what can be done than by what should be done — and “can do” simply does not get as much attention as “should do.” Also, the history of Lag B’Omer is not as historically clear as days that have achieved greater prominence on the calendar. The Talmudic heritage suggests that certain calamities befell disciples of Rabbi Akivah over a period of 33 days or so between Passover and Shavuot; and even within this suggestion there are disparate opinions as to which month or so was marred by the calamities
It would be an interesting and insightful exercise to examine the customs associated with Lag B’Omer, and the generations when they were most dearly observed and practiced. I would not be surprised if we learned about parallels and similarities between the Jewish experiences in the years that Rabbi Akivah lived and the eras wherein Lag B’Omer may have held a position of greater importance or intensity.
Nonetheless, Judaism’s triumph of continuity over oblivion is founded upon the importance and observance of ritual and tradition. It could even be suggested that the quantity of ritual associated with a specific holiday or commemoration is a marker regarding the value maintained by that date throughout the ages. As a rabbi, I am less concerned about what does or does not happen on Lag B’Omer than I am concerned about what does or does not happen on Shabbat, High Holidays and the three pilgrimage festivals. Lag B’Omer, with its “can do” list that includes picnics, bonfires, weddings and musical celebrations, is a great portal of entry into the world of joy that should be associated with Jewish custom and tradition. Primacy will always be the jurisdiction of days marked by “should do” observances, and those are the days that justifiably get the best of our attention.
Rabbi Jeffrey Glickman
Temple Beth Hillel
Judaism is not just cerebral. Our ancestors spent much more time outside than we do. Torah is written in the language of nature. Lag B’Omer gives us a fine excuse to enjoy God’s creation at a beautiful time of transition.
Rabbi Ilana C. Garber
Beth El Temple
Lag B’Omer gives contemporary Jews an opportunity to brush up on our Hebrew. We use Gematria, a Hebrew structure of assigning numerical values to each Hebrew letter, so that LaG, made up of the letters “lam-ed” and “gimel,” equals 33. When teaching about Lag B’Omer – the history of Rabbi Akiva’s students’ deaths, the connection between Pesach and Shavuot, and the mini-mourning leading to joyful celebrations – we are reaffirming a connection to Torah, to the Jewish people, and to the Hebrew language. Thus Lag B’Omer is a day of unification for the Jewish people and our communities. In Israel, the beaches and mountains are glowing with bonfires, as young Jews unite and celebrate together. Here too we might unite, learning “cool” Hebrew words such as “Taryag” – an acronym representing the 613 mitzvot (commandments) and “chai” – 18 – meaning “life.” In practice this holiday may have fallen off the calendar for many (though there are tons of Jewish weddings on this day), but we might seek to revive it as we cherish our beautiful Hebrew language and the rich heritage that it represents.
Rabbi Yosef Wolvovsky
The Benet Rothstein Chabad
The double message of Lag B’Omer is a most powerful one. It is as relevant today as it ever was, perhaps even more so. In a nutshell, this auspicious day carries two crucial lessons: Jewish knowledge and Jewish unity. With serious challenges in the area of Jewish education — amongst both children and adults — and with the menace of needless discord raising its ugly head, we must surely heed the message of Lag B’Omer in our times.
This festive day marks two significant events. Firstly, it is the day of the passing of the great Talmudic sage and mystic, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (author of the Zohar). Rabbi Shimon, who lived in the second century, was the first to publicly teach the mystical dimension of the Torah known as the “Kabbalah.”
On the day of his passing, he instructed his students 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 his accomplishments achieve their culminating perfection. Each year, on Lag B’Omer, we celebrate Rabbi Shimon’s life and the Torah wisdom that he made available to us. Indeed, these spiritual teachings continue to inspire millions of people the world over.
Lag B’Omer also commemorates another important event: In the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, a plague raged amongst the students of the famed sage Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud identifies the cause of this terrible plague: “They did not act respectfully towards each other.” This is especially stinging since, after all, Rabbi Akiva is the one who taught that “Love your fellow as yourself” is a central principal of the Torah. On Lag B’Omer the dying ceased. Thus, this special day also carries the theme of love and respect for one’s fellow.
Jewish knowledge and Jewish unity.