On Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day between Pesach and Shavuot, weddings and haircuts are permitted, unlike during the rest of the Omer period, because the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, who died from a plague due to internal dissent, ceased dying. In addition Lag B’Omer is celebrated as the Hillulah d’Rashbi, the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi), student of Rebbe Akiva and author of the Zohar, the foremost book of the Kabbalah. On this day, bonfires are lit throughout Israel, especially at Rabbi Shimon’s grave in Meron, little boys have their first haircuts, and a great celebration is held.
According to the Bnai Yissaschar and Rav Tzaddok Hakohen, Rashbi not only died on Lag B’Omer, but he was also born on the same day. It is quoted in the name of the Ari that Rebbe Akiva ordained Rashbi and his colleagues on Lag B’Omer, thus ensuring the continuity of the Oral Law after the death of his earlier students. The Gemara (Shabbat 33b*) narrates how Rashbi and his son hid in a cave for twelve years after fleeing from the Roman decree of death. There, covered in sand, fed by a carob tree and drinking from a spring, the greatest secrets of the Torah were composed.
Emerging from the cave, Rashbi perceived Jewish farmers working. Dismayed by their lack of Torah study, he “burned them up!” His shock is understandable in light of his position that Jews should only study Torah and not work. He is considered to be the only person whose Torah study is so great that he need not pray (although he did pray in the cave). Nonetheless Rashbi and his son were ordered to return to the cave for another year, after which a mellower Rashbi emerged, whose love for every simple Jew was all too apparent. This too, writes the Aruch Hashulchan, was on Lag B’Omer.
The Zohar relates how on the last day of his life, the sun stood still as Rashbi revealed the greatest secrets of the Torah. Dying happily, he encouraged his followers to make his yahrzeit a celebration. For this reason, the Ari, the Ohr HaChaim and other great Kabbalists would journey to Meron to celebrate on Lag B’Omer. We light bonfires, explains the Bnai Yissaschar, in honor of Rashbi, known as Bozina Kadisha, the Holy Candle, and in honor of the Zohar, the Book of Splendor. We also remember the great light of the day that the sun did not set, and mark the final stage of preparation for the giving of the Torah on Shavuot. On Lag B’Omer, seventeen days before the Torah is given, the light of the Torah begins to shine.
Rav Baruch of Medzibuzh would finish studying the Zohar on Lag B’Omer, and in his beit midrash everyone would dance hakafot for the Simchat Torah of Kabbalah. Rav Tzaddok tells us that in the same way that the Rashbi continued the Oral Law of Rebbe Akiva, who was himself killed by the Romans, Lag B’Omer is a day when every Jew has the great potential for internalizing the Oral Law in all its manifestations. The reason for haircuts (as well as the ancient Sephardic custom of burning garments) may therefore be to symbolize our desire to throw off externalities (chitzoniut) and become connected with the deeper reality (penimiyut) that Rashbi teaches.
Parshat Bechukotai, which is usually read around this time, begins with the words, Im Bechukotai Talachu, “If you will walk in My statutes.” The Mai Hashiloach uses play on words on the root chok, which, in addition to “statutes,” means “to engrave.” He writes, “so that My statutes will be engraved upon your heart.” The Torah that flows from the heart is expressed when we reach the level of spiritual perfection that enables us to naturally flow with the mitzvot in all aspects of our lives. Rashbi is the greatest example of this aspect of the Torah. By appreciating the holiness of Lag B’Omer and internalizing Rashbi’s message, we will merit that Hashem’s statutes will be engraved upon our hearts.
*It is interesting to note that the story of Rashbi appears on the 33rd page of Tractate Shabbat, as his life is so bound up with the 33rd day of the Omer.