According to Jewish tradition, the period between Passover and Shavu’ot, during which we count the 49 days of the Omer, is marked by solemnity and quasi-mourning over past Jewish tragedies, particularly the death of 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva in the 2nd century. Over the centuries, and for reasons shrouded in mystery, the 33rd day of the Omer, Lag Ba-Omer, has taken on the status of a quasi-holiday, celebrated with bonfires, hikes, archery, and pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Akiva’s greatest pupil, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, on Mt. Meron in the Galilee.
In Israel, the observance of Lag Ba-Omer has developed in two different directions. On one hand, like many other traditional Jewish holidays, it has been converted into a secular national holiday that reinforces certain cardinal Zionist values. In this case, the nineteenth-century theory that Rabbi Akiva’s students died as soldiers in Bar Kokhba’s revolt against the Roman Empire opened the door for Lag Ba-Omer to become a celebration of that last gasp of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land for over 1,800 years. In a society that lionized Trumpledor’s defiant statement, “It is good to die for our land,” that had its youngsters vow “Masada will not fall again,” the name of Bar-Kokhba, all but erased from the Babylonian Talmud, was engraved in the pantheon of Jewish military heroes and commemorated with a day off from school.
On the other hand, for others the hero of Lag Ba-Omer is R. Shimon bar Yochai, to whom the basic kabbalistic corpus is attributed. Mystical circles have come to consider Lag Ba-Omer a sort of Rosh Hashana, a celebration of the birth of Jewish mysticism. The growing trend of popular mysticism has transformed Lag Ba-Omer into the greatest annual expression of Jewish folk religion, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis making the pilgrimage to Meron to sing, dance, eat, drink, and bask in R. Shimon’s glow.
Most years, the divergent observances of Lag Ba-Omer do not cause problems. Some celebrate Bar Kokhba, others celebrate R. Shimon bar Yochai, and harmony reigns. However, the last few times that Lag Ba-Omer has coincided with Saturday night/Sunday, as it does this year, a dilemma has emerged. In one of the numerous oddities and ironies produced by the attempt to transform Judaism into an Israeli public religion, many people begin their bonfires and cookouts in the late afternoon, a desecration of Shabbat. Moreover, public transportation and security forces were deployed while it was still Shabbat, in order to be ready for the festivities that would begin with nightfall.
Consequently, several years ago Israel’s Chief Rabbinate ruled that Lag Ba-Omer celebrations should be deferred until Sunday night, thus reducing the public desecration of Shabbat. This ruling was backed by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, then Israel’s most powerful and revered rabbi, and the mass observance was largely deferred. In deference to the calendar date of Lag Ba-Omer, and in tacit acknowledgement that many people would nevertheless celebrate on that date, schools gave both Sunday and Monday off, much to the students’ delight (and their parents’ chagrin). Harmony prevailed once again.
This year, the Chief Rabbinate ruled similarly that observances should be deferred until Sunday evening. But some things have changed. For one thing, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has passed away, and there are none of his stature and authority to make the same demands. Consequently, the Chief Rabbinate’s ruling only carries weight within its small and increasingly marginal constituency. At the same time, the new Minister of Education, Rabbi Shai Piron, has dictated that schools will only be closed on Monday, the deferred date, thus transforming the choice of date into a zero-sum game. Furthermore, this must be viewed in context of Israel’s current political array: Piron’s Yesh Atid party is vilified by large swaths of the Israeli religious population, and especially the Ultra-Orthodox. It was Yesh Atid’s ascendancy that pushed the Ultra-Orthodox parties into the opposition, and it was Yesh Atid that insisted that the new law regarding the draft of yeshiva students contain criminal sanctions. Thus, whereas in past years it was possible to craft a solution through good will and level-headedness, the current religio-political climate has led to strife, defiance, and name-calling.
It is this sort of issue that can make life in Israel both endlessly fascinating and terribly frustrating. Where else but Israel do bonfires dot the landscape as far as the eye can see on a relatively minor holiday? And where else does a disagreement about when to celebrate that holiday become a national political issue?
This article first appeared in the Intermountain Jewish News