From the second day of Passover until the festival of Shavuot, Jews are commanded to count seven weeks. For the ancient Israelites, the Omer period (sefirah) was the critical time when the success of the harvest was determined. The pilgrimage festival of Shavuot at the conclusion of the Omer period was in thanksgiving for God’s blessing and protection of the land and its produce.
The Omer period is observed as a time of semimourning during which traditional Jews do not get haircuts, celebrate weddings or attend concerts. The exception to the semimourning during the sefirah period is Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, which this year falls on May 18.
According to Talmudic and midrashic sources. during the Omer period, 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiva died of a terrible “plague” that ceased on Lag B’Omer. This may refer to the overwhelming defeat suffered by the forces of Bar Kochba, whom Akiva strongly supported in the unsuccessful rebellion against the Romans, with Lag B’Omer commemorating the brief recapture of Jerusalem.
The kabbalists considered Lag B’Omer as closely related with Shimon bar Yochai, credited by the traditionalists as the author of the mystical Zohar (Book of Splendor), who is said to have died on this date. As a student of the spiritual leader of the revolt and one of only two rabbis ordained by R. Akiva, bar Yochai bitterly opposed the Romans for the cruel martyrdom they inflicted on his teacher, stating that “even the best of gentiles should be killed.”
After an informant revealed to authorities derogatory comments that Yochai had made about the Romans, the sage was condemned to death and forced to flee with his son Eleazar. For 12 years they hid in a cave studying Torah, sustained by a spring of water, dates and the fruit of a large carob tree.
After the Roman emperor died, which annulled his decree against them, bar Yochai and Eleazar emerged from the cave. Seeing a man plowing and sowing, they exclaimed: “They forsake eternal life and [instead] engage in life that is transitory.” Wherever they cast their eyes, the land was immediately consumed by fire. So a heavenly voice cried out, “Have you emerged to destroy My world: Return to your cave!”
According to the rabbis, excessive piety is not commensurate with life, and practical work is necessary for the world. Thus their return to the cave was depicted as a punishment, not a meritorious deed. Eventually, bar Yochai and his son were forced to admit the impracticality of all Jews engaging in full-time Torah study, but they continued to maintain that no human activity can truly compare to it.
The Zohar is an immense mystical commentary on the Pentateuch and parts of the writings, written in both Hebrew and Aramaic and consisting of 20 separate treatises. Its central tenet is that human actions such as good deeds, prayer and mystical meditation can impact the divine world, thus promoting a harmonious union between the “upper” and “lower” spheres that increases the flow of divine energy to the human world.
Conversely, sinful and unrighteous behavior impedes this life-giving flow. Modern scholars attribute the Zohar to the late 13th- century Spanish rabbi Moses de Léon, although some traditionalists argue that he simply discovered material that had remained unknown for centuries.
The gravesite of bar Yochai is in Meron, a village in the Upper Galilee near Safed. Today it is the site of a celebration where thousands of kabbalists and Chasidim in Israel hold a festive celebration on Lag B’Omer, studying mystical texts and singing and dancing around large bonfires to mark the date of the sage’s death. Because cutting one’s hair is prohibited during the semimourning Omer period, on Lag B’Omer it became customary for 3-year-old boys to have their first haircut.
The scores of weddings performed on this day add to the festive character of this holiday. It is customary to eat foods made from carob on Lag B’Omer, because the fruit of a carob tree sustained bar Yochai and his son while they hid from the Romans in a cave.
Dr. Ron Eisenberg, a native Philadelphian and radiologist in Boston, is the author of the recently released Essential Figures in Jewish Scholarship.