Lag b’Omer is one of those minor holidays that we all tend to be a little confused by. Bonfires? Weddings? Concerts? Haircuts?
Here’s what we know: Lag b’Omer is the 33rd day in the Omer period, which we count from the second night of Passover through Shavuot — that’s Biblical. The Omer period is associated with a period of mourning, as the Talmud relates there was a plague that killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students — that’s rabbinical. According to medieval tradition, the plague ceased on the 33rd day of the Omer, which is why despite it being during a period of mourning, normally forbidden activities — weddings, concerts, haircuts — are permitted.
OK, but how do bonfires, ball games and BBQs fit into all of this? There’s actually not a whole lot of clarity on this. The bonfire is said to symbolize the Shimon Bar Yochai, who is said to have died on Lag b’Omer. The sports — derived from archery specifically — may hearken to Rabbi Akiva’s support for the ultimately unsuccessful Bar Kochba rebellion. (Some believe that his students died in the rebellion, not in a plague.)
However we got here, at sundown tonight and through tomorrow, festivities will be underway. One of the biggest traditions is get a haircut, and the National Library of Israel has come across a manual from 1601 documenting the practice.
Sefer HaMinhagim (“Book of Customs”) was printed in Venice in Yiddish — a language we would not necessarily associate with Italian Jewry, but actually was one of the most commonly spoken languages among Italian Jews.
The book’s authors took into account the difficulty of some of its readers in deciphering the written commandments and therefore included woodcut illustrations to make the religious laws, commandments and customs more accessible. The use of illustrations that dramatized the various laws and traditions was apparently intended to allow readers of the book to clearly understand the practicalities of Jewish life and customs in simple, direct fashion.
The book contains the first known documentation of the Lag b’Omer custom of cutting one’s hair (see above). So if you go the barber tomorrow, know that you’re following a tradition that’s at least hundreds of years old.
Adapted, in part, from National Library of Israel and My Jewish Learning.