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Lag b’Omer explained

Have you ever wondered why we barbecue on Lag b’Omer? Or hold athletics competitions? Or in Israel, why masses of parents take their sons up north to the Galilee region for their first haircut? As this week’s IJN editorial points out, the holiday of Lag b’Omer comes with its own set of quirky customs — which we readily enjoy — and decided it was high time to find out where these traditions originate.

Let’s break it down from the top. Lag b’Omer is the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer, the seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot. (Lag is an acronym comprised of the Hebrew letter Lamed, for 30, and Gimmel, for 3, hence 33.) From there follows two essential elements for understanding Lag b’Omer’s many traditions: 1) The Omer period is considered one of semi-mourning (incidentally another tradition whose origins are murky), and for the 33rd day only, mourning restrictions are lifted; and 2) Lag b’Omer is the yahrzeit of Shimon Bar Yochai, author of kabbalah’s core text, the Zohar.

You’ll find that all the Lag b’Omer traditions related to one (or both) of these elements.

Bonfire: In Israel, one of those heartwarming moments when one knows their in a Jewish country, is when boys begin collecting wood for the Lag b’Omer bonfire. Bonfires are lit throughout Jewish communities worldwide, but the tradition originates at the gravesite of Shimon Bar Yochai, in Meron in Northern Israel. It’s said that the light of the fire symbolizes the light Bar Yochai brought to the world through his kabbalistic teachings.

We couldn’t find proof of this, but our guess is that at one point someone decided to throw a steak on that fire, and voila, the Lag b’Omer barbecue was born.

Athletics/Sports: Our Lag b’Omer Maccabiah-style competitions originate in kids playing with bows and arrows. Why archery? you may ask. According to the Midrash, rainbows (which are arch-shaped) did not appear throughout Bar Yochai’s lifetime. Why is this important? you may further wonder. In the Bible, rainbows represent G-d’s promise to us that he won’t destroy the world by flood; Bar Yochai’s saintliness protected humanity, and as such rainbows were unnecessary.

Boys’ First Haircut: On Lag b’Omer, the gravesite of Shimon Bar Yochai is crowded with three-year-old boys getting their first haircut, known as the upsherin. This one comes from the lifting of mourning restrictions, one of which is not cutting one’s hair. The plethora of weddings on Lag b’Omer follow this same logic, as do concerts with live music.

We mentioned above that the reasons for the Omer being a mourning period are not altogether clear. The most common reasons given are the failure of Bar Kochba’s rebellion against Roman forces and a fatal plague that struck the students of the Talmudic sage, Rabbi Akiva.

And here’s a last bit of trivia: For Sephardim, the big celebration is the day after Lag b’Omer, or Lad b’Omer.

Did we get our explanations right? Or are there any we left out? Let us know!

And don’t forget that many such events are taking place locally, from picnics to barbecues to concerts. Visit our Community Calendar for more details of Lag b’Omer events!

2 thoughts on “Lag b’Omer explained

  1. deb webster

    ok. so here’s the deal: the entire story of Akiba (originally a shepherd) is important here, because it reveals how remarkable he was: 40 years old before he began to study; and how dedicated his wife, Rachel, was (originally from a very wealthy family who left to be with akiba’s incredible curiosity and mind, she became impoverished and lived alone with their 2 sons, for 24 years, while he studied torah.) one needs to set the scene. this wasn’t just “any” Akiba.

    Akiba becomes so learned, so knowledgeable–no doubt being 40 and having a little experience and worldly wisdom beforehand had something to do with this–that thousands upon thousands flocked to him as students, in order to learn. yes.

    then, as you correctly state, a plague arose, and killed off all of his students. it wasn’t one or two, but all 24,000 students! yep. huge. interestingly, no one else was stricken–struck?–by the illness, or died. but all of the students expired.

    here’s the thing: there was a reason. the students didn’t get it. the students thought that learning with akiba was the most important thing; they were to be the carriers-on of torah, after Akiba’s generation. they were all competing with one another, to be the best of the best, in order to follow in his footsteps.

    but. Hashem was not happy with the thought that even though these students were the best and the brightest, their primary focus was their own self-accomplishment and competition with one another, rather than true love of torah. Hashem knew that if these people were to carry on after akiba, their focus would not be pure, and the message of torah with these 24,000 students would not be good enough. thus, away they had to go. poof.

    ultimately, Akiba chose more students after this calamity–only five were suitable. one of them, of course, was the great Shimon Bar Yochai, as above.

    we mourn the loss of these 24,000 souls, and in a sense we mourn for our own souls, when we remember about arrogance, self-aggrandizement, and human importance over that of torah and Hashem. we remember that akiba was so learned and remarkable, that 24,000 students had to perish in order for hashem to find anyone whom could carry on and follow torah with the same kind of holiness and humility.
    the little ps to all of this is that Akiba is considered to be responsible for teaching us about loving one’s friend as one loves himself; Akiba shared his entire accomplishment of learning torah with his wife, rachel, who sustained him in all things: sh’li v’sholochan shaloh (sp)–my torah is her torah–she gets as much credit for my learning as i do.

    he was quite a guy. hashem took the lives of 24,000 men who were not adequate to akiba’s greatness in terms of knowledge, humility, wisdom, or understanding, in order to make that clear. on lag b’omer, in the midst of 49 days of mourning the loss of the students, we celebrate akiba’s greatness, along with all the other reasons for joy that are given.

    and we progress on our journey to sinai, after the exodus from egypt–17 days to go.


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