Holiday Tip: This year Lag b’Omer 2017 will begin in the evening of Saturday, 13 May.
What is Lag b’Omer?
Lag b’Omer or Lag BaOmer, Hebrew: ל״ג בעומר, is the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer—this year, May 14, 2017. This is a festive day on the Jewish calendar – one which you celebrate. The holiday occurs on the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar. Unfortunately there are not many traditional Lag B’Omer foods. Surprisingly enough there is no particular greeting associated with this holiday.
What is Omer?
The Omer period is the 49 days that bridge between Passover and Shavuot. The Omer is a time of mourning, when weddings are forbidden, no haircuts, and no listening to music – all of which are signs of grief. This is the period of the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students and the defeat of Bar Kokhba’s revolt.
Why Rabbi Akiva?
Rabbi Akiva, the towering sage of the Mishna (Oral Torah), exerted a powerful influence on the Torah scholars of his day, to the point that he had 24,000 disciples. It is assumed that his students also were soldiers in the Bar Kokhba Revolt. A cataclysmic epidemic (the revolt?) claimed the lives of these students – all 24,000 of them.
What has Bar Kokhba got to do with Lag b’Omer?
Shimon bar Kokhba was the Jewish leader of what is known as the Bar Kokhba Revolt against the Roman Empire in 132-135 CE. This revolt established an independent Jewish state which Bar Kokhba ruled for three years as Nasi (president). His name was originally Bar Koseva but was changed to Kokhba which means a star! Many Jews at the time, including Rabbi Akiva, believed that Shimon was the Jewish messiah. (Doesn’t that sound familiar?) The Roman army was made of six full legions with auxiliaries and elements from up to six additional legions, which finally managed to crush the revolt. This was the end of an independent Judaea until 1948. In memory of the Bar Kochba uprisings in Judaea against Roman rule, Lag b’Omer day is today celebrated with hikes in the woods. Children traditionally play with bows and arrows like Bar Kokhba’s soldiers and light bonfires.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai
In Israel, great crowds come to visit the resting place (in Meron, in northern Israel) of the great sage and mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the anniversary of whose passing is on Lag BaOmer. The site of his grave in Meron, in the north of Israel, is the second most popular touristic attraction in Israel. Rabbi Shimon was a great sage who lived and taught approximately half a century after the destruction of the second Temple.
On the day he died, Rabbi Shimon instructed his disciples to mark the date as “the day of my joy.” Today many young Jewish couples get married on this date. This is the “Jewish June”. In fact, this is also my parents’ anniversary.
Rabbi Simeon continued to defy the Roman rulers even after Bar Kochba’s defeat, and was forced to flee for his life and spend years in solitary hiding. Legend places him and his son Eleazar in a cave for 12 years. There a miraculous well and carob tree sustained them while they spent their days studying and praying. When they finally emerged, Simeon denigrated all practical occupations, insisting that people engage only in the study of the Torah . For this God confined the two to their cave for another year, accusing Simeon of destroying the world with his rigid asceticism.
But Rabbi Simeon’s otherworldliness resonated with mystics in his own time and later, so much so that tradition ascribes to him the composition of the Zohar (“Glow” or “Luminescence.”), the key work of the Kabbalah. Critical scholars attribute it to the 13th-century Spanish kabbalist Moses de Leon.