Jewish FAQ for May 2, 2012

Lag B’Omer

What is it?
Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day of the Omer (a verbal counting of each of the forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot), which falls on May 10th, this year.


This holiday is an oasis of joy in the midst of the sad Sefirah period which is almost unnoticed by most contemporary Jews. Yet it contains historic lessons of such great severity ― that this generation must not only unravel the mystery of Lag B’Omer but will discover that its own fate is wrapped in the crevices of its secrets.


This fifty-day period should have been a time of joyful anticipation, as Jews literally “count the days” from the first night of Passover until Mattan Torah ― the revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai which took place on Shavuot, exactly fifty days after the Exodus. While the Exodus marks the physical birth of the Jewish nation ― the Giving of Torah completes the process through the spiritual birth of the Jewish nation.


The reason for sadness during this period, the Babylonian Talmud tells us, [Yevamot:62:2] is that during this period, Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students, who lived 1,850 years ago in the Roman dominated Land of Israel, died from a mysterious God sent plague. Why did they die? Because the Talmud teaches, “they did not show proper respect to one another.” Lag B’Omer is celebrated on the thirty-third day because on that day the plague ended and Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying.


This is observed as a period of semi-mourning. Weddings, music and haircuts are not permitted, and some do not shave. It is on the sad side of Sefirah that we come across the holiday of Lag B’Omer, the one day during this sad period when our mourning is halted; when sadness is actually forbidden.


The one-day holiday is celebrated with outings, bonfires, and other joyous events. Many visit the resting place of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in northern Israel. Rabbi Shimon lived in the second century C.E., and was the first to teach the part of the Torah known as the Kabbalah. He also authored the basic writings of Kabbalah known as the Zohar. On the day of his passing, he instructed his disciples to mark the date as “the day of my joy.” So each Lag B’Omer, we celebrate Rabbi Shomon’s life and the revelation of the esoteric soul of the Torah.


Lag B’Omer also celebrates another event: The Talmud relates that in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, a plague hit the disciples of the great sage Rabbi Akiva, “because they did not act respectfully towards each other.” On Lag B’Omer, the deaths ceased. Thus, Lag B’Omer also carries the theme of the mitzvah to love and respect one’s fellow (ahavat yisrael).


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