Lag Ba’Omer and the flames of history’s secrets

Three thousand four hundred years ago, in the year 1412 BCE, we received the Torah and its commandments at Sinai (the year 2,448 in the Hebrew calendar). Of all those many years, over just one hundred years, the mitzvah of counting the Omer has been radically altered — twice. This altering has been so serious; we often forget what the original form of the Omer days looked like and why they have changed. Many of these changes have remained a secret for generations, often to be discovered centuries later. 

 Right as the Jews leave Egypt, the Torah says:

“Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When you come to the Land which I am giving you, and you reap its harvest, you shall bring to the Kohen an omer of the beginning of your reaping. And he shall wave the Omer before the Lord so that it will be acceptable for you; the Kohen shall wave it on the day after the rest day.”

After the hard work of almost half a year, yielding nothing you can bring home for dinner, the farmer in the Land of Israel finally sees the green stalks of grain ripening in the field. Like the commandment to bring the first fruit, the Jewish people bring the grains of the first to ripen barley to the Beit Hamikdash on the day after Passover. Like so many commandments in the Torah asking us to bring our firsts — first fruit, firstborn, first to shear, etc. — we are to bring our first grains to ripen to the Beit Hamikdash. Yet unlike the various commandments to offer our first at the Beit Hamikdash or give them to the Kohen, this delivery is not individual. The offering of the Omer was brought by the Beit Din, representing the entire Jewish community. The communal nature of this commandment can be so much better understood in the context of a farming society that shares in the joys of the first harvest and partakes in a communal offering of gratitude as the first grains ripen in the fields. 

Yet suddenly, we are told that this commandment of bringing the Omer is not just a communal one; we are told this commandment connects to each of us on an individual basis. 

“And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day from the day you bring the Omer as a wave offering seven weeks; they shall be complete. You shall count until the day after the seventh week, [namely,] the fiftieth day, [on which] you shall bring a new meal offering to the Lord.”

After bringing the communal barley offering, each and every Jew is obligated to count every day, leading up to the time we bring the communal offering of the two loaves of bread — Shtei Halechem — which happens to also be the holiday of Shavuot. Once we have engaged in individual counting, the Torah moves forward with, once again, a communal obligation:

“From your dwelling places, you shall bring bread, set aside, two [loaves] [made from] two tenths [of an ephah]; they shall be of fine flour, [and] they shall be baked leavened, the first offering to the Lord.”

On the 50th day to our individual counting, once the wheat has already ripened in the fields, we advance from the days we were bringing the early-ripening barley to bringing the later-ripening wheat.

These verses very much characterize an agricultural cycle of celebration, but it was not limited just for the farmers to celebrate. This most festive time of the year made sure the Jewish people — as a nation — all partook in the blessings of the Land. Even those who were not growing barley or wheat counted every day from the bringing of the barley Omer to the brining of the two loaves of wheat bread. 

While this cycle is agricultural, it is impossible to ignore the magnitude of the religious and historical events on both sides of the count: we begin the count on the second night of Passover. The end of the count is the holiday of Shavuot. Counting of the Omer is not only a mathematical practice letting us know when the holiday of Shavuot will arrive. However, it does that too; it is a spiritual ladder from the time marking our exodus from Egypt to receiving the Torah at Sinai. 

Rabbi Moses Nachmanides, the Ramban, in his commentary to the Torah (Vayikra 23:36), compares the days of the Omer — between Passover and Shavuot — to the concept of Chol Hamoed, int we have on Sukkot and Pesach. In his view, the Omer counting binds Passover and Shavuot, making them inextricable from one another. As we count up from Passover to Shavuot, we transform ourselves from simply being people liberated from slavery to those who received God’s word at Sinai. 

Be it the agricultural, the spiritual ascent, or the national progress, the days of the Omer carry with them intense joy, spiritual growth, and optimism — or at least they did until the first century when everything changed. Two events in the first century completely transformed the days of the Omer, taking them from times of joy and celebration to times of intense mourning and a religious, cultural battle. 

The first event took place prior to the destruction of the second Temple. As the Second Temple neared its final years, intense religious and sectorial conflict occurred between the many different sects in Jerusalem. One of the most famous of those was the conflict between the Pharisees — rabbinic Judaism — and Sadducees, who only believed in the written Torah and its literal meaning. 

Of all the disputes between the Pharisees and Sadducees, the one about the counting of the Omer was the most serious one. While the Rabbis — the Pharisees — took “the morrow of the Sabbath” written in the verse as talking about the first morning of Passover (the day after bringing the Passover sacrifice), the Sadducees took those words literally, thus beginning their count from the Sunday after the first Saturday (Shabbat) of Passover (see elaborate discussion of the Talmud Bavli Menachot 65-66).

This disagreement had strong ripple effects. Not only did it impact the day of bringing the Omer of barley to the Temple, but it also differentiated the time the two groups began their counting of the Omer. If you followed the rabbis, you would start your daily counting to the Omer on the second day of Passover, while Sadducees would begin their count on the Sunday after Shabbat Chol Hamoed — on the morrow of the first Shabbat since celebrating the Passover Seder. The ripple effects of this disagreement would continue to unfold until the holiday of Shavuot — which is prescribed to be on the 50th day of the Omer counting — a holiday thus observed on different days. 

Both sides — Sadducees and Pharisees — did not try and keep this disagreement subtle. 

The rituals, observances, and differences regarding the Omer were emphasized in order to make clear whose way was followed and why that was important. The Mishna (Menachot chapter 10, Sefaria translation) describing the ceremony of bringing the Omer of barley as such:

“How would they perform the rite of the harvest of the Omer? Emissaries of the court would emerge on the eve of the festival of Passover and fashion the stalks of barley into sheaves while the stalks were still attached to the ground so that it would be convenient to read them. The residents of all the towns adjacent to the site of the harvest would assemble there so that it would be harvested with great fanfare. Once it grew dark, the court emissary says to those assembled: Did the sunset? The assembly says in response: Yes. The emissary repeats: Did the sunset? They again say: Yes.” 

 The rabbis wanted to make sure that the Omer ceremony was done with as much fanfare as possible so to make it clear that the path of the Sadducees was unacceptable. Thus, the time of the Omer was given added meaning to it; no longer was it a time to exclusively celebrate agricultural blessings, but it was also a time for the rabbis to assert traditional Judaism and curb the trend of the Sadducees who denied the traditions of the Oral Torah. 

It was less than one hundred years later that the course of the Omer was altered forever. To many, the mere mentioning of the days of the Omer has come to be synonymous with the students of Rabbi Akiva, as the Talmud famously shares:

“They said that Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students in an area of Land that stretched from Givat to Antipatris in Judea, and they all died in one period of time because they did not treat each other with respect. And the world was desolate of Torah until Rabbi Akiva came to our Rabbis in the South and taught his Torah to them. This second group of disciples consisted of Rabbi MeirRabbi YehudaRabbi YoseiRabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. And these are the very ones who upheld the study of Torah at that time. Although Rabbi Akiva’s earlier students did not survive, his later disciples were able to transmit the Torah to future generations. With regard to the twelve thousand pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s students, the Gemara adds: It is taught that all of them died in the period from Passover until Shavuot. Rav Ḥama bar Abba said, and some say it was Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Avin: They all died a bad death. The Gemara inquires: What is it that is called a bad death? Rav Naḥman said: Diphtheria” (Yevamot 62b, Sefaria translation) 

Similar to mourning the death of one’s own relative, mourning the loss of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students is commonly observed in most Jewish communities by not celebrating weddings or Bar and Bat Mitzvah’s, not listening to instrumental music, not getting haircuts, and other restrictions on celebratory behavior. We mourn the loss of human life and scholarship we have lost during the days of the Omer we have experienced with the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students. 

 

Yet, there was always something that seemed odd about this extended mourning of the students of Rabbi Akiva. Of course, the death of twenty-four thousand young Torah scholars is an unspeakable tragedy. Yet even more tragically, the Jewish people have seen much worse tragedies in our history that have gotten far less attention. Take, for example, the war between the kingdom of Judah and Israel (Chronicles II, chapter 13), which killed a half a million (!!!) of our people and is not even a known fact to many, as it disappeared into obscurity, known to Tanach experts only. Why is it that the students of Rabbi Akiva receive so much of our collective and national attention? Many major events in the history of our people do not even have one day dedicated to their memory, and here, an epidemic among Rabbi Akiva’s students receives more than a month. Why?

Fascinatingly, Rabbi Shrira Gaon, the leader of Babylonian Jewry and head of the Pumbedita (today’s Faluja, Iraq) writes in his famous letter Iggeret Rabbi Shrira Gaon written 987 CE (in section 10) a previously unpublished reason for our observance of mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva.

“Rabbi Akiva gave himself to death [by the Romans]…and he had many students, and there was a decree of destruction on Rabbi Akiva’s students”. 

While Rabbi Shrira Gaon does not elaborate more on this, the implication is clear, Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed by the Romans. This is no mystery. Moses Maimonides writes as a matter of fact (Yad Hachazaka, 11:3)

“Rabbi Akiva, one of the greater Sages of the Mishnah, was one of the active supporters of King Bar Kozibah and would describe him as the Messianic king. He and all the Sages of his generation considered him to be the Messianic king until he was killed because of sins.”

If indeed, Rabbi Akiva was an active participant in the Bar Kochva rebellion, it is, in fact, hard to imagine that Rabbi Akiva’s younger students not participating in a war their own RabbiRabbi believed to be a necessary one. Considering the devastating brutality the Romans dealt the Bar-Kochva Rebellion, it is hard to imagine Rabbi Akiva’s students not being of those hit hardest in this crushing force the Romans use the quash the rebellion. Interestingly, Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (1269-1343) writes in his famous Halachic work the Tur (Orach Chaim 393:4) that it is customary for Jewish women not to do work in the days of Sefirat Ha’omer after nightfall. He goes on to explain that unlike the custom of women not to do work on Hanukkah after nightfall which is done in celebration of the miracle of Hanukkah, abstaining from work during Sefirat Hammer is done in solemn memory of the burial of Rabbi Akiva’s students, which was possible after nightfall. The great Zionist thinker and founder of the Beni Akiva Yeshiva network, Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neriya, points out the oddity of this. Why were the students of Rabbi Akiva only allowed to be brought to burial after nightfall? 

Connecting this to the Talmud’s statement (Brachot 48b) about the fourth blessing of Birkat Hamazon being established in gratitude for the fact that those killed in Beitar—the final stronghold of the Bar-Kochva Rebellion. Thus Rabbi Neriya shows another strong connection between Sefirat Ha’Omer customs and remembering the Bar Kochva rebellion. 

Arthur Szyk,1927, Bar Kochba and his warriors (copyright-free)

It is not hard to imagine why there is so much mystery surrounding the real nature of our mourning during these days of the Omer. The Bar Kochva rebellion was the most flagrant and most brazen of slaps the Jewish people have ever given the Roman empire seeking to dominate us. It was also the most failed one. While the Great Rebellion that led to the destruction of the Second Temple was indeed an attack on the Romans, it was very much not a reflection of consensus among the Jewish people, as exemplified in Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai and others’ opposition to it and the Romans knew that. Bar Kochva’s rebellion, on the other hand, reflected a much broader Jewish consensus, and the results followed. After the Bar Kochva rebellion, Jews were almost completely eradicated from the Land of Israel; cities were destroyed, villages eradicated, trees uprooted, and fields burned. Any implication of siding with such a devastating rebellion would have likely led to strong repercussions. 

Jewish discontent for openly discussing our collective mourning did not have to be all external; it likely had internal reasons too. In many ways, the crushing destruction of the Bar Kochva rebellion (132–136 CE) was far greater than that of the Great Rebellion (66–73 CE). Of course, the Great Rebellion had the irreparable devastation that came with the destruction of the Second Temple, but many Jews remained in the Land of Israel. Israel was still the nation’s epicenter of Jewish life. The Roman response to the Bar Kochva rebellion, however, was far more severe. Entire towns were leveled to the ground, infrastructure, farming, water, homes, and livelihoods were methodologically wiped out. It was almost the full end of Jewish life in Israel for the next two millennia. It is no surprise then that there was a lack of eagerness to remind anyone of the rebellion that brought about so much destruction.

 

While the ethos of the first and second centuries, Rabbi Akiva and his students, and Rabbi Akiva’s student Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, are felt throughout the days of Sfirat Hammer, on no day are those felt like on Lag Baomer—the 33rd day of the Omer. Be it the tradition that Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying on Lag Ba’Omer, Lag Ba’Omer being the day Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai passed away, or the tradition amplified by modern Zionism that fires of Lag Baomer signified the beginning of the Great Rebellion, this day is a powerful reflection of an era that has shaped the Jewish people more than almost any other. And while the era of the Bar Kochva Rebellion did traumatize and changed the Jewish people forever, we were unable to discuss so many of the events that took place at that time. Be it external fear or internal trauma; the Jewish people did not have a proper open venue to discuss and observe the meaningfulness of the times that have changed us forever. Adding to the secrecy of the day is the memory of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s teachings on the secrets of the Torah — Kabbalah and the Zohar — teachings that remind outside the public sphere of Jewish learning for many centuries. 

 

Whether it is the Bar Kochva Rebellion, the students of Rabbi Akiva, the victory of the Rabbis over the Sadducees, the life and teachings of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, Lag Ba’Omer teaches us it can take centuries to process something that has happened to us. Whether you are focused on the national trauma, the loss of scholarship, the heroic fighting, or the inspiring Kabbalistic teachings, those may take time to fully be expressed. Even as we observe the days of the Omer in their Biblical context and prepare to receive the Torah, we are (secretly) reminded of this history that has shaped us to who we are. Whether you observe Lag Ba’Omer as a sad and solemn day (which some do) or an occasion for celebration (which most do), always remember that we must always remember. It may take time, but the memories of the past are part of who we are. 

 

 

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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