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Tuvia Book
Author, educator, Tour-Guide, artist

How Modern Zionism Transformed the Meaning of Lag B’ Omer

In the nineteenth century Lag B’ Omer was a minor holiday of rather late origin, obscured by various traditions regarding its origin and significance. Modern Zionism transformed it into a holiday that promoted national values: the struggle for freedom, the military heroism, and the hope for redemption.

Lag B’ Omer literally means the thirty-third day of the Omer (counting of the sheafs – of barley), a seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot. It was originally a happy period linked with the spring harvest, where the farmers counted the days from planting (around Passover time) to reaping, and ultimately bringing the agricultural thanksgiving offerings to the Temple on Shavuot. Sometime in the Talmudic era this period became associated with semi-mourning. Although the exact reasons for this transformation from joy to semi-mourning are unclear. The Talmud, completed centuries after the events in question, mention a mysterious plague that culled vast amounts of the second century CE sage Rabbi Akiba’s students, apparently for “unethical behavior.”

Lag B’ Omer as a date for celebration has an even later origin, dating to as recently as the thirteenth century and only in the sixteenth century was it commemorated in the Land of Israel. In fact, it only became more widely celebrated from the eighteenth century on. The standard explanation for the holiday was the cessation of the mysterious plague that led to the death of multitudes of Rabbi Akiba’s students. There is an even later tradition, originating with the mystics of Safed of associating Lag B’ Omer with death of the second century CE sage and traditional author of the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. To commemorate the ascension to heaven of the mystic Rabbi’s soul in a festive manner, bomb-fires were lit, and songs were sung. This was called a Hilula.

It is all rather vague and part of the larger picture, namely the Rabbis attempts to demilitarize Judaism. The Talmudic sages reasoned that if the Jews continuously partook in large-scale, and ultimately unsuccessful, military revolts against the massively superior Roman forces, with resulting mass casualties, there would be no chance of Judaism surviving. (There were three full-scale revolts in the first and second centuries of the common era, The Great Revolt 66-73 CE, The Diaspora Revolt 115-117 CE, and The Bar Kokhba Revolt 132-135/6 CE). To this end the Rabbis suppressed the military aspects of the Hannukah story and did not glorify Bar Kokhba, or his revolt. They wanted to emphasis that the redemption would come through study and good deeds, and not dramatic military intervention.

The central character and inspiration of the Zionist narrative of Lag B’ Omer was the second century CE Jewish military leader Shimon Bar Kokhba, who led an ultimately unsuccessful revolt against the Roman occupation forces of Judea in the years 132-135/6 CE. The emergence of Lag B’ Omer as the commemorative festival of Bar Kokhba, is legitimized as the triumph of “folk memory” over the official “Rabbinical” attempt to suppress it.

The nascent Zionist movement wanted to reemphasize the connection with the Jews and their land, and indeed our warrior past. In contrast to the tendency of the rabbinic tradition to gloss over the revolt, early Zionists eagerly seized on the story as proof that Jews, when faced with persecution, were capable of fighting for their dignity and self-respect. Max Nordau (1849–1923), an early popular Zionist leader, wrote in an essay about “muscle-Jews” that: “Bar Kokhba was the last embodiment in world history of a bellicose, militant Jewry.” Many Zionist sports clubs that sprang up in the interwar years in Europe were named Bar Kokhba, in honor of the legendary hero who symbolized the “new Jew.” They saw him as the antithesis of the weak Diaspora Jew, constantly fleeing persecution, as portrayed scornfully by Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873–1934) in his epic poem, “In the City of Slaughter.”

The story of the Bar Kokhba revolt came to symbolize the hope that as the Jews returned to their homeland, they would be able to regain their honor by reclaiming their land, their language, and their ability to defend themselves. As Benny Lau noted.

The Zionist movement emphasized the historical connection between the Bar Kokhba Revolt and the modern struggle for Jewish independence. It became customary to sing songs on Lag B’ Omer that praised Bar Kokhba as a bold independent fighter.… The Israeli national dream was kindled by the embers of the Bar Kokhba Revolt.

Within all the vague and diverse traditions relating to Lag B’ Omer’s origins, the Zionists added another one, which has become the predominantly accepted one in the past century (excepting among ultra-Orthodox Jews) linking the holiday to the Bar Kokhba Revolt. This reinterpretation of the Lag B’ Omer shifted the focus of the holiday from Rabbinical figures to a national military hero. This reinterpretation and transformation of the reason to commemorate Lag B’ Omer was in sync with the Zionist philosophy that redemption will only come about through actions and deeds, and not passive hopes and prayers.

The IDF, the first Jewish army in Israel since Bar Kokhba, was founded symbolically on Lag B’Omer. Photo (c)T. Book, 2024
About the Author
Dr. Tuvia Book was born in London and raised in both the UK and South Africa. After making Aliya at the age of 17 and studying in Yeshiva he volunteered for the IDF, where he served in an elite combat unit. Upon his discharge he completed his BA at Bar-Ilan University, as well as certification in graphic design. He then served as the Information Officer at the Israeli Consulate of Philadelphia, while earning a graduate degree in Jewish Studies. Upon his return to Israel, Dr. Book graduated from a course of study with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, and is a licensed tour guide. Tuvia has been working in the field of Jewish Education, both formal and informal, for many years. He has guided and taught Jewish students and educators from around the English-speaking world for some of Israel’s premier educational institutions and programs. Tuvia has been guiding groups for Birthright Israel since its inception and, in addition, has lectured throughout North America, Australia, Europe and South Africa. Tuvia served as a Shaliach (emissary) for the Jewish Agency for Israel as the Director of Israel and Zionist Education at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York (Jewish Education Project). He was a lecturer/educational guide at the Alexander Muss Institute for Israel Education (AMIIE) in Israel for a decade. Tuvia has lectured at both Bar Ilan University and Hebrew University. He was a Senior Editor and Teaching Fellow at the Tikvah Fund. He is a research associate at the Hudson Institute. Tuvia is the author and illustrator the internationally acclaimed Israel education curriculum; "For the Sake of Zion; A Curriculum of Israel Studies" (Fifth edition, Koren 2017), and "Moral Dilemmas of the Modern Israeli Soldier" (Rama, 2011) and has a doctorate in Israel Education. His latest book, "Jewish Journeys, The Second Temple Period to the Bar Kokhba Revolt – 536 BCE-136 CE," was published by Koren this year. To order: https://korenpub.com/products/jewish-journeys
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