Today is Lag Ba-Omer, to which some might say “now what?” Is this a Jewish observance that is fundamental to Jewish identity? Not especially. Are there any special foods to eat? Not really. Are there any special prayers to say, or readings to be chanted from the Torah? No. Are there any special customs? Yes, but they’re not well known or widely practiced. So what exactly is Lag Ba-Omer and what meaning does it hold for us?
To understand Lag Ba-Omer, it’s necessary to dissect its name. “Lag” is a Hebrew acronym that represents the number 33 and refers to the 33rd day of the Omer (see last week’s post to understand the counting of the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot). Simply put, today is the 33rd day of the Omer. According to Jewish tradition, the first 32 days of the Omer period are considered a time of semi-mourning. Observant Jews don’t hold festive events and some don’t cut their hair. This practice is based on a somewhat vague idea found in the Talmud that the disciples of Rabbi Akiva treated one another with disrespect and therefore suffered from a plague. The disciples repented and the plague subsided on the 33rd day of the Omer, so it became an occasion for celebration.
It’s also possible that the legend of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples dying from a plague developed from a historical event, namely the failed Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans in the year 135 CE when thousands of Jewish soldiers were killed. That would account for the old custom of holding picnics and playing games with bows and arrows on Lag Ba-Omer.
An entirely different explanation of the origin of Lag Ba-Omer concerns Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, the legendary author of the Zohar, the foundational text of Jewish mysticism. Francine Klagsbrun, author and commentator, writes:
“Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, who survived the Bar Kokhba revolt, is said to have died on Lag Ba-Omer. Rabbi Simeon continued to defy the Roman rulers even after Bar Kokhba’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, where 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 Torah. For this God confined the two to their cave for another year, accusing Simeon of destroying the world with his rigid asceticism.”
To this day, Jews visit the tomb of Simeon bar Yohai in the town of Meron in the Galilee where they pray, sing, and play games. Putting aside that this Kabbalistic rabbi is revered, the legend reminds us that Torah study, while virtuous, must be balanced with active engagement with the world. Good deeds and active participation in efforts to make our society a better place are fundamental to Jewish life.
So there you have two worthwhile messages from a little known, minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. People owe one another proper treatment and respectful language, and study must be balanced with meaningful action. Whether you spend the day at a picnic, busy at work or at home with family members, I hope that Lag Ba-Omer will have some meaning for you.