Aaron Kalman
Working for Israel and the Jewish People

Lag BaOmer, the burning question of ‘why?’

The Talmud tells us stories about those who wish to understand why Jews act in strange ways and worship god through bizarre rituals. These questions are answered in different ways.

One famous answer is given by Rav who, after being asked about ritual slaughter, says Mitzvot — decrees — are meant to forge humans. Whether it means making us better or putting us through trials, I never liked that answer.

Another one of the “why do you do X?” stories asks for the origins of the red heifer. To this Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai answers with a question. “How do you scare an evil spirit from a sick person?,” and the man explains his religious-witch-medicine rituals. In our language, one might have answered by saying “Aren’t all religions illogical?” Again, not an answer I loved.

To me, the best part is that to these questions there are many answers, all are true and all are false. Those given 1,500 years ago still have meaning, but those given today are just as important. I like the multiple answers — all of them, all at once.

Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day of the count between Passover and Shavuot, is one of the holidays that has us asking “Why?”. Why do kids make large bonfires? Why do they play with bows-and-arrows? Why do we…? Why do I…?

What answers were given to this burning question?

Some, mainly from the religious world, choose to talk about the plague that killed 12,000 pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s students, killing lovers of Torah and elite analytical minds because they didn’t respect one another the way they should have.

Others, including the Kibbutz movement and other Zionist organizations, talk about the revolt against the Roman empire led by Simon bar Kokhba in the first half of the second century. To these, the fires represent national identity and bravery.

Thousands celebrate Lag Ba-Omer at Mt. Meiron (photo credit: Abir Sultan /Flash90)
Thousands celebrate Lag Ba-Omer at Mt. Meiron (photo credit: Abir Sultan /Flash90)

There is another reason, one celebrated by tens of thousands who flock to Mt. Meiron and Rabbi Simon bar Yochai’s grave. According to a semi-Kabbalistic tradition this is the date of bar Yochai’s death, a day (or night) during which one should be reading the cryptic language of the Zohar.

Three answers celebrated by hundreds of thousands. Fire crackling that symbolizes death and the burning of plagued bodies next to signal fires spreading the word of victory in a battle. Bows and arrows of human efforts to change reality flying around those who learn the Zohar and try to influence the world through worlds from above.

There are more answers, I’m sure. Every imagery is explained in a way that matches the world view in the eyes of the believers. We have no way of knowing what the ‘true’ reasons of the holiday are.

Like many questions we ask ourselves, especially those surrounding religion and belief, there isn’t always a single answer, and those given aren’t necessarily good or easy ones. But, I like the fact that everyone can find their reason and still enjoy the same holiday.

This Lag BaOmer is an opportunity for us to look at other bonfires, at other Jews celebrating the holiday in ways we can’t always relate to, and remember that our reasoning is good. For us.

About the Author
Aaron Kalman is a Program Officer at the Ruderman Family Foundation, working to strengthen the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community. Formerly an advisor to Israel's Minister of Diaspora Affairs and a Jewish Agency emissary to Sydney, Australia, Aaron has an M.A. in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and a B.Ed. from Herzog College.