Beth El’s Guide to Lag B'Omer
By: Ben Kreshtool, Ritual Director
Lag B'Omer is a minor holiday that occurs on the 33rd day of the Omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot.
Why do we celebrate Lag B’Omer?
There are a few explanations as to why we celebrate Lag B'Omer, but none is definitive.
The Sefirah (counting) is a period of national mourning for the Jewish people. Accordingly, Jews refrain from marrying during this time, as weddings and other celebrations are strictly forbidden. Along those lines, very observant Jews do not cut their hair during the Omer, as a sign of grief.
The most often cited explanation for this period of semi-mourning comes from the Talmud, which tells us that during this season a divine plague killed approximately 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva‘s students because they did not treat one another respectfully (Yevamot 62b).
Additionally, the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-136 CE) - a Jewish rebellion led by Simon Bar Kochba against the occupying Roman forces who were attempting to eradicate Jewish Rabbinic leadership - also occurred during the Omer. Unfortunately, the Romans crushed Bar Kochba and his rebels with great force.
Thus the persecution the Jews by the Romans, and the loss of Rabbi Akiva's students necessitated a grieving period, which is why some Jews practice mourning customs - such as not cutting one's hair, shaving, or listening to live instrumental music - during the Omer.
But why do we celebrate Lag B’Omer on the 33rd day of the Omer, specifically?
One answer comes from Gematria, a Kabbalistic method of interpreting Hebrew scriptures by computing the numerical value of words, based on those of their constituent letters. In the Gematria every Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent: the letter “lamed” corresponds to 30, and the letter “gimmel” represents three. The numerical sum of lamed and gimmel is 33. According to a medieval tradition, the plague that befell Rabbi Akiva’s students ceased on Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day of the Omer. As a result, Lag B’omer became a happy day, interrupting the sadness of the Omer period for 24 hours.
What are the customs of Lag B’Omer?
As mentioned before, on Lag B’Omer, we temporarily suspend the somber tone of Omer, in favor of a day of fun and mysticism. Tradition teaches us that Lag B’Omer is a mystical day because the kabbalistic Sefirah assigned to this day is Hod she’b’hod, which means “Splendor within Splendor.” Often, people will use Lag B’Omer as a day to get married, cut their hair, shave their beards, and listen to music.
The traditional and most recognizable Lag B’Omer custom is to light a bonfire which represents the mystical book the Zohar. To that point, many Israelis visit Har Meron on Lag B’Omer, the mountain where Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a Rabbinic sage and author of the Zohar is buried. Bonfires also symbolize the signal fires that the Bar Kochba rebels lit to message each other.
Additionally, bows and arrows are symbolic of Lag B’Omer. In Hebrew, the word for bow and rainbow is the same: Keshet. The Midrash teaches us that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s merits protected everyone, and so a rainbow was never seen in his lifetime. For that reason, many Israeli children shoot bows and arrows in empty fields on Lag B’Omer.
Lag B’Omer also has several Zionist connections.
The Palmach - the elite fighting force of the Haganah, the underground army of the Yishuv (Jewish community) during the period of the British Mandate for Palestine - was established on Lag B’Omer 1941. Then, on Lag B’Omer 1948, following Israel's Declaration of Independence, Prime Minister and Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion issued an order for the formation of the Israel Defense Forces.
How can I celebrate Lag B’Omer at home?
Here are a few ideas to celebrate Lag B’Omer at home with your friends and family:
Make a small fire at home. If you have a fire pit outside, that's great, but a grill or a fireplace works just as well. Lag B'Omer is a perfect time to make s' mores!
Go outside! When the Romans outlawed the study of Torah, Rabbi Akiva’s students would go out into the woods with bows and arrows, pretending to be competing in archery, when really they were learning Talmud. We commemorate their sacrifice by playing field games. So, weather permitting, use Lag B’Omer as an opportunity to visit a local park, or just enjoy nature.
Listen to Israeli music. Lag B’Omer is a great time to explore the diverse array of music from liturgical and traditional Middle Eastern to pop and rap, there’s something for everyone!
Get a haircut! If it’s been a while, there’s no better day to get a haircut then Lag B’Omer!
Eat! No Jewish celebration would complete without a delicious meal! The carob is the food most closely associated with Lag B'Omer, as it's the only food Rabbi Shimon could eat while hiding from the Romans.
While Lag Ba'Omer is a relatively minor holiday, it does let us know that Shavuot is coming! Please check our website for service times and program information. Yizkor will be recited on Monday, June 10.