This article was co-authored by Daniel Brook. Information about him is at the end of this article
Lag B’Omer is considered a minor Jewish holiday, but even a minor holiday provides valuable lessons and is worth celebrating. A great way to celebrate Lag B’Omer is through vegetarianism, as Lag B’Omer has many vegetarian connections.
Lag B’Omer represents the 33rd day of the counting of the omer, the 49 days from the second day of Passover and Shavuot, reminding us of the link between these two holidays. While Passover celebrates our freedom from slavery, Shavuot celebrates our receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. During Passover, Jews brought barley to the Temple in Jerusalem; on Shavuot, Jews brought their first fruits. The Hebrew letters forming lag represent 33 and an omer is a sheaf or measurement. The goal should be not only to count the omer, but also to make the counting meaningful.
According to a midrash, there were fifty days between the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah — between liberation and law — because the Jewish people were not yet spiritually pure. On our modern journeys, in our efforts toward liberation, we can increase our spiritual purity by eating vegetarian foods. We can purify our health and purify our planet, while purifying our spirit. Many people who switch to a vegetarian diet report feeling physically, emotionally, and spiritually better. Lag B’Omer presents a special opportunity to reflect back upon where we’ve come from as well as to look forward to where we might, and should, be going, as it is a time for self-awareness, self-growth, and community development.
We hope that Jews will enhance their celebrations of this ancient and beautiful holiday of Lag B’Omer by making it a time to strive even harder to live up to Judaism’s highest moral values and teachings. We certainly don’t need more “things” in our homes and we don’t necessarily need to make an agricultural pilgrimage; instead, we do need more meaning, purpose, and spirit in our lives. To be grateful for life is to appreciate it, to sustain and protect it, for yourself and others, for humans and animals. There are a variety of ways to accomplish this. One significant way is by moving towards vegetarianism.
By sharing grain with others, Lag B’Omer demonstrates the power of cooperation and community. In contrast, meat-eating demonstrates the opposite. Raising animals for consumption, besides being cruel to animals (and therefore violating tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, causing unnecessary harm to animals), uses and wastes a tremendous amount of grain as well as water, land, soil, and fossil fuels (transgressing bal tashchit, the injunction not to waste anything of value), while destroying communities (the opposite of tikkun olam, healing the world), degrading the environment (not the way to be shomrei adamah, partners in re-creating our world), and damaging human health (violating pekuach nefesh, the need to protect our health and lives).
Judaism also stresses the importance of tzedakah, that we be kind, assist the poor and weak, and share our food with the hungry; yet approximately 3/4 of major U.S. grain – e.g., corn, wheat, soybeans, oats — is fed to the billions of animals destined for slaughter. Further, Judaism repeatedly suggests that we pursue peace and justice, and vegetarianism is one key step on that path.
Traditionally, many Jews refrain from joyous celebration during the counting of the omer. However, Lag B’Omer is a day during this season upon which marriages, haircuts, and other celebrations are allowed to begin again because miracles have occurred on Lag B’Omer. It was on Lag B’Omer, for example, that a plague that had killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students finally ended. Choosing vegetarianism champions life by saving lives everyday. Shortly after the plague, Rabbi Akiva chose five students to carry on his work, one of whom was the great sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
The Omer period is sometimes referred to as the Sefirah, The Counting. Sefirah also means illuminating. Literally for some and figuratively for all, it is important to count each day and to make each day count. Eating vegetarian may allow us to live longer and healthier lives, as many scientific studies have shown, while saving the lives of countless animals. Doing so illuminates our lives as well as theirs, allowing each of us to continue the blessing of counting the omer for more years.
In addition to resource conservation and economic efficiency, a switch toward vegetarianism would greatly benefit the health of individuals, the condition of our environment, and would sharply reduce the suffering and death of billions of animals. Further, the social, psychological, and spiritual benefits should not be underestimated.
This season, while we count the omer, we should educate ourselves about the hazards of meat production and consumption and the benefits of vegetarianism, as well as bring offerings to our inner temples. We can do this by practicing the powerful teachings and highest values of Judaism. One way to achieve the wonderful aspirations of Judaism is by switching to a vegetarian diet. A shift toward vegetarianism can be a major factor in the renewal of Judaism, as it would further demonstrate that Jewish values are not only relevant but also essential to everyday personal life and global survival.
For more information, please visit Aish at aish.com/omer, the Jewish Vegetarians of North America at www.JewishVeg.com and The Vegetarian Mitzvah at www.brook.com/jveg. View a free documentary called A Sacred Duty at http://asacredduty.com.
Daniel Brook, Ph.D., is an author, speaker, poet, instructor of sociology and political science, and is a member of the Advisory Committee of Jewish Vegetarians of North America. He can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.