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.
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!