How can one day remind us of Judaism's links to mysticism, be a time to mourn and a time to dance, and also be an Israeli pilgrimage that is reminiscent at times of Woodstock? Lag B'Omer is all of those things.
The seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot is a time of semi-mourning, but on the 33rd day, Lag B'Omer weddings are permitted, and the day is celebrated with bonfires, parties and haircuts. This year, Lag B'Omer falls on Sunday, May 2.
The holiday actually marks the end of a plague during the Bar Kochba revolt in the second century C.E. According to tradition, students and soldiers were dying, and the plague ended on that particular day.
Lag literally means "33." The Hebrew letter lamed (the "L" sound) carries the numerical value of 30; the gimmel (the "G" sound) the value of 3.
Though a minor holiday, it's important as a day of relaxation and outdoor recreation during the otherwise traditional mourning period of the Omer.
If the day is identified with one person, then it must be Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon was a student of Rabbi Akiva, whose 24,000 students perished during the Roman conquest of Jerusalem 1,900 years ago because, as the Talmud tells us, "they did not show proper respect for each other." Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was one of the very few scholars to survive.
Rabbi Shimon and his son sought refuge and studied Torah in a cave for 12 years. The rabbi is believed to have died on Lag B'Omer, but just before his death, he revealed the Zohar, Judaism's great Kabbalistic work, to his students. Because of his legacy, Rabbi Shimon's yahrzeit has become a day of celebration.
One of the most popular Lag B'Omer traditions is to light bonfires. The Ohr Somayach site explains why: "On the day of Rabbi Shimon's passing, a great light was revealed to his students when he uncovered many of the hidden secrets of the Torah. This was written down in the Zohar (literally, 'shining'). The bonfires symbolize the light of the hidden wisdom that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai revealed on Lag B'Omer."
Some of the biggest bonfires take place in Meron, a small town in northern Israel.
There, it is believed to be the burial place of Rabbi Shimon, so every year it becomes the focus of a mass pilgrimage as tens of thousands of Jews come to celebrate, dance and even do a little business.
Mark Mietkiewicz is a Toronto-based Internet producer who writes, lectures and teaches about the Jewish Internet. He can be reached at: [email protected]