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Lag B'Omer connects Pesach (which reminds us of our Exodus from slavery) to Shavu'ot (our freedom through the receiving of the Torah). It is the 33rd day of the Omer count. Lag B'Omer is part of the traditional observances instituted at Leviticus 23:15: "'And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the LORD."
The Torah commands counting the days from Pesach to Shavu'ot. This period is known as the Counting of the Omer. There are several traditions surrounding this mourning period including the cessation of weddings, celebrations, parties, etc. Haircuts and other optional elements of grooming are also prohibited during the days of the count. During the period of the Omer Count many Jewish men who traditionally don't observe the halachic shaving prohibitions gradually become more furry as the days pass. Lag B'Omer is the one day during this period where these rules are suspended and most take advantage this option.
On Lag B'Omer Jews are encouraged to leave their mourning behind and go out into nature with family and friends with thanksgiving. Traditionally children play with bows and arrows, women prepare sumptuous foods and men light bon fires. For weeks before the event, Israeli children scavenge wood to arrange as impressive sculptures – often 20 or 30 feet high. Great public celebrations are held and the wood towers are set to flame. These celebrations occur throughout Israel and in many Jewish areas of the Diaspora.
Chassids especially love to visit Kefar Meron Israel (near Tzfat/Safed) for these celebrations in memory of the great Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (aka "Rashbi"), the celebrated Jewish mystic of the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. When the Roman occupation forces outlawed Torah study in Eretz Y'israel Shimon bar Yochai fled to Kefar Meron There he lived in a cave for twelve years after publicly rebuking the Romans and receiving a death sentence. There are many accounts of the austerities of Rabbi Shimon and his pious son Elazar, as well as accounts of miracles performed on their behalf by HaShem. For example, living as they did they had no food to eat nor water to drink, and so HaShem caused a carob tree to sprout within the cave, along with a stream of water.
It is said:
Rabbi Abba, a student assigned with the job of transcribing Rabbi Shimon's words, reports: "I couldn't even lift my head due to the intense light emanating from Rabbi Shimon. The entire day the house was filled with fire, and nobody could get close due to the wall of fire and light. At the end of the day, the fire finally subsided, and I was able to look at the face of Rabbi Shimon: He was dead, wrapped in his Tallis, lying on his right side – and smiling." Each year Jews from around Israel light bonfires, to commemorate the great fire that surrounded Rabbi Shimon.
Ahuva and I were in Israel on Lag B'Omer in 2013 and witnessed these bonfires from the Judean hills (from Alfei Menashe). They sprinkled the Land below us as far as the eye could see. They were truly awesome to behold. The lighting of these bonfires is a well established tradition throughout the nation of Israel, especially but not only among the Chassids. According to tradition Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai ordered his talmidim (or students) to mark the 33rd day of the Omer count, the date of his death, as "the day of my joy."
Among his notable contributions to Judaism and Chassidus Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai restored the largely forgotten mystical aspects of Kabbalah after receiving specific approval and direction from the Heavenly Court. The spiritual revitalization that followed the dark period of Jewish infighting (resulting in the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash in 70 CE) was short lived however. In time a majority of Jews again allowed their Torah observance to wane and HaShem largely removed the meritting of this knolwledge from the world. As a result the inner or mystical teachings of Torah were mainly lost due to our collective unworthiness.
During the days of the famed Spanish Kabbalist Moses de León (c. 1240 – 1305) there was a move to reestablish this knowledge, however these men also lacked the inner purity to peer beyond the surface levels of understanding. Despite their notable contributions they failed to restore this Wisdom. The knowledge was further "dimmed" or "concealed."
Later on the Ari (Rabbi Isaac ben Solomon Luria Ashkenazi, 1534 – July 25, 1572) received the Divine inspiration to restore this mystical wisdom, from a condensed Oral form, to our people lest it be lost to future generations.
After the Ari -- whose contributions to Jewish mystical thought can not be over stated -- came several holy teachers and masters known collectively as Baal Shems, i.e. Masters of the Name. From among these came our master, The Baal Shem Tov or the BESHT, Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer. He was born circa 1700 and died 22, May 1760. The Baal Shem Tov, or "Master of the Good Name," established the modern Chassidic Movement and restored Kabbalistic wisdom to its proper spiritual foundation and place within Jewish understanding.
The disciples of Rashbi, the Ari, and the BESHT brought forward the oral teachings of their masters for future generations. This knowledge quickly spread among the Jews, especially those of Eastern Europe. Rashbi wrote only the first mishna of the Zohar personally. As with our holy Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (great grandson of the BESHT), it was the talmidim of these accomplished masters (most notably Reb Nosen in Rebbe Nachman's case) who elucidated and spread their sacred teachings for the world.
So, on Lag B'Omer Jewish mystics are particularly aware of the mystical components of the Omer Count and the holiness of this 33rd day of the count.
Why is the Counting of the Omer period observed with mourning? True the Rashbi died during the count but he said Lag B'Omer was the day of his joy. The mourning aspect of these days reminds of us many things:
- According to one opinion in the Mishnah, the judgment of the wicked in Gehinnom (often translated as Hell) takes place between Passover and Shavuot so we mourn for their sakes and seek to strengthen our own souls.
- It is a time of severity and judgment pertaining to crops. This is one reason why the Omer offering is brought at this time. Through mourning we demonstrate our teshuvah and prayers for mercy and continued sustainance.
- From the First Crusade to the pogroms and blood libels, the period between Passover and Shavuot was especially brutal for the Jews, with entire communities of tens of thousands of Jews killed. We mourn in remembrance.
- The mystics teach that these days are days of judgment and severity.
However one of the main reasons we mourn is what to happened to Rabbi Akiva's 24,000 talmidim. The Talmud states:It was said that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbatha to Antipatris; all of them died at the same time, because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate [of Torah] until Rabbi Akiva came to our rabbis in the south and taught them Torah. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua, and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A tanna taught: All of them died between Passover and Shavuot. Rabbi Chama bar Abba, or some say Rabbi Chiya bar Avin, said: All of them died a cruel death. What was it? Rabbi Nachman replied: Croup -- Yevamot 62b.An added element of our mourning is included here when one considers the four rabbis who were, through their mystical attainments, permitted to enter Paradise and return. We are taught that four great mystic sages entered the Pardes (literally "the orchard"), which is to say, Gan Eden. Rabbi Akiva was one of these sages. Rashi explains that these were all highly accomplished rabbis in Jewish mysticism. They "ascended" by utilizing the Sacred Four Letter Name of G-d as prescribed in certain mystical teachings. These sages were: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben Avuya (later called Acher, "the other one") and Rabbi Akiva.
After successfully attaining Gan Eden or Pardes, Ben Azzai gazed at the Divine Presence and died (according to Rashi). Ben Zoma was "harmed" or went mad, according to Rashi. Elisha ben Avuya/Acher became a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva returned with no apparent damage. Our texts says that, "Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace."
As one considers the mystical aspects of our annual Omer count we do well to remember the associates and talmidim of Rabbi Akiva. Jewish mysticism is not something to take lightly!
The tradition of kids playing with bows and arrows on Lag B'Omer commemorates the midrashic tradition that no rainbow was seen during Rabbi Shimon’s lifetime. Rainbows are a sign/assurance that HaShem will never again devastate the entire world as he did during the Day of Noah. During times of evil when the world is deserving of divine punishment, G‑d sends a rainbow instead (which is why Jews typically will give no more than a glancing look at rainbows). While alive Rabbi Shimon’s merit was so great that it protected the entire world, rendering the rainbow superfluous.
Some have the custom of eating carobs on Lag B'Omer in honor of that miracle.
All of the prohibitions during the counting of the Omer period are suspended on this day. For this reason, many Jews will have haircuts, shave, marry, and so on on Lag B'Omer. For more on the Counting of the Omer see my study here: HERE.
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