Written by: Erin Parfet

Lag B’Omer

“Rejoice on this day... celebrate by singing praises to God from the book of Psalms, and not God forbid by lightheaded frivolity.” -Rabbi Shneur Zalman

“If you haven’t seen the joy of Lag B’Omer on the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, you haven’t seen joy at all.” Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Israeli author and Nobel Prize Laureate

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Lag B’Omer is a day meant to foster Jewish unity during the Omer period, which itself serves as a spiritual preparation for Shavuot. It is consistently celebrated on the 18th day of Iyar, which also coincides with the 33rd day of Omer (the 49-day time between the second day of Passover and the beginning of Shavuot), and is a day of family-filled festivities and gatherings. The origins of the occasion are not particularly clear but seem to honor several historical events. The day is intended to be a day of Jewish unity amidst the Omer period, which in and of itself is intended as spiritual preparation for Shavuot.

As it is believed the sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai passed on this day, many, especially Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, will trek to his presumed burial site in the mountain town of Meron, Israel, on Lag B’Omer. Rabbi bar Yochai was best known for being one of the first to teach Kabbalah, which is a mystical component of the Torah, in addition to authoring the Zohar, which is one of the primary texts of the Kabbalah.

In his writings, Rabbi Bar Yochai went so far as to give instructions for the day of his passing to be known as a “day of my joy.” Thus, the pilgrimages partially originated from the explicit directions for such a day to be a day of joy rather than a day of mourning. Furthermore, because of the Jewish tradition that a righteous person’s life, and especially the life of a righteous Jew, should be honored for the legacy of their work on future generations, Lag B’Omer has become a holiday dedicated to celebrating the impact of the work and teachings of Rabbi bar Yochai on Jewish life, especially as it pertains to the mystical aspects of the Torah.

Rabbi Bar Yochai specifically made the request that Lag B’Omer be a special day rather than a day of mourning or semi-mourning, and so it has been. As he told his son Elazar and some of his students in regards to Lag B’Omer shortly before his passing, “This is an auspicious time. I will now reveal the divine secrets of the Bible (Torah) that I have never yet disclosed so that I will arrive in the world without reason for embarrassment. I see that today is a special and unique day."

Once in Meron, it is not uncommon for sojourners to sing kabbalistic or Aramaic hymns or Yiddish songs and light bonfires around the presumed graveside of the late Rabbi. Many Jewish people will bring their young, three-year-old sons to Meron for their first haircut (the upsheren ceremony). Some observant Jews will trim their beards on this particular day to catch up on the lack of any beard trimmings since before Passover. Such pilgrimages to Meron are believed to have commenced in the 11th century. It is believed that Hillel the Elder and Shammai the Elder, two other well-known sages, are buried on Mount Meron as well. The gravesite at Mount Meron has a separate section for women to dance and/or pray at.

Lag B’Omer has another reason for celebration, however. According to the Talmud, a plague swept through Rabbi Akiva’s disciples (Rabbi Akiva being the teacher of Rabbi bar Yochai) due to the 24,000+ disciples’ failure to act “respectfully” toward one another. The weeks leading up to Lag B’Omer are sometimes furthermore considered a time of mourning due to the discord between the disciples, and many of these disciples were believed to be divinely punished with sickness and death for their failure to get along with one another. However, on Lag B’Omer, the deaths among the disciples halted, and the deaths no longer mounting were deemed a cause worthy of celebration. Therefore, Lag B’Omer has carried on some themes of Ahavat Yisrael, or loving and respecting one’s fellow neighbor (Yevamot 62b).

One less popular theory on the origins of Lag B’Omer pertains to those scholars who believe the manna that sustained the Israelites in the desert may have first miraculously appeared on the 18th day of Iyar—Lag B’Omer.

There may be local parades, children might play with bows and arrows, and families and friends may gather for singing or dancing around bonfires, particularly at night, holding picnics and barbecues while enjoying God’s nature outdoors. It is a time of making foods over the campfire, such as hot dogs, roasted marshmallows, baked potatoes, and s’mores, though graham crackers are not widely available in Israel as they are in other parts of the world; Petit Beurre (a type of French shortbread cookie) is often used instead of graham crackers in parts of the Middle East. Basically, any kosher food item that can be cooked on a skewer over an open campfire is permissible. Other customs may include spreading out a white sheet and dabbing the sheet with olive oil in a type of mystical ritual, and young men reciting Torah passages while shooting bows and arrows.

The bows and arrows are believed to symbolize the discord between Rabbi Akiva’s students, while others believe the bows and arrows better symbolize the skirmishes between Jerusalem and Rome during the Bar Kochba Rebellion. Some in Israel will take this opportunity to plant trees, though this tradition is not as widespread on Lag B’Omer as it is on Tu BiShv’at. The bonfires symbolize the signal fires from the Bar Kochba Revolt in the second century. When the bonfire is first lit, it is not uncommon for party-gatherers to recite, “bizchut hatanah Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai,” which translates to “in the merit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai of the Tannaim.”

Lag B’Omer is a popular day for weddings as the spirit and restrictions of mourning or semi-mourning that are imposed during the Omer are temporarily lifted for the duration of Lag B’Omer; this is the only day of the Omer permitted by Jewish law to hold a Jewish wedding. This is also a reason Lag B’Omer is a popular day for haircuts, with the restrictions of mourning, which include restrictions on haircuts, temporarily lifted.

The food item most traditionally associated with Lag B’Omer is carob, which legend attests is the substance along with a well of water that sustained Rabbi Bar Yochai and his son Elazar while they were hiding in caves for 14 years, hiding out from the Romans. Carob grows easily in Israel, so it is widely available in that part of the world. Eggs are sometimes associated with Lag B'Omer, symbolizing mourning.

A spirit of Jewish unity, community, and brotherly love for one’s neighbor is an undercurrent of the Lag B’Omer celebration, as many take the occasion to gather, to show love for one another, to hug, to dance together, and to pray together. Many western cultures tend to fiercely praise independence and rugged individualism. Therefore, immediate or perhaps extended families often celebrate the holidays isolated in family units without necessarily interacting with their neighbors or their faith communities as a whole during any given holiday, which is typically staunchly defended as “family time.”

In contrast, Jewish holidays tend to be much more communal, focused on intermingling with the broader family of God, whether in synagogue or in community events, rather than solely one’s own household or bloodline. Lag B’Omer is no exception; during this holiday, community, fellowship, festivities, love for one’s neighbor, and Jewish unity are prevailing themes.

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