Lag B’Omer is here! When I think about this festive day, I think haircuts.
My first encounter with Lag B’Omer was in Israel. I was living in Tiberias, post university, working at the Department of Welfare. I had never heard about the holiday growing up in the US. Before the arrival of Lag B’Omer, hundreds of religious families with small children passed thru the main street in Tiberias on their way to Har Meron (Mount Meron). They were on the way there to celebrate the holiday and young boys who turned three would be getting their first haircuts there. I later discovered that Lag B’Omer was a celebratory day for all Israelis, not just the religious. Bar- B-Ques, bonfires, picnics, archery, and weddings marked the day.
Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer, which falls this year at sundown May 18th – sundown May 19th. Lag is Hebrew for 33. “Omer” is a measure of barley that was offered at the Temple in Jerusalem each of the 49 days of the counting. The counting of the Omer commences on the second day of Passover and is completed on Shavuot. It is considered a mourning period, so weddings or parties, even haircuts, are prohibited, except on Lag B’Omer, the one day when Jewish law permits these activities. A Jewish custom of grief is not cutting hair so boys who turned three between Pesach and Lag B’Omer celebrate upsherin (hair-cutting ceremony) at the Lag B’Omer celebrations.
This festive day is a minor holiday not written in the Torah. The roots of celebration of this date go back to the 2nd Century: the date that Rabbi Akiva’s students ceased dying of the plague and the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar. Rabbi Yochai is believed to be buried at Mount Meron. He instructed his disciples to mark his death “as a day of my joy” which took place on Lag B’Omer.
Additionally, the Talmud relates that in the weeks between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot a plague raged among the students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva (teacher of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) that ceased on Lag B’Omer.
Bonfires symbolize the light Simeon Bar Yohai brought into the world. The tradition of bonfires in modern Israel is a reminder of the signal fires of the Jewish revolt against the Romans which took place in the 2nd century. Counting each day represents the spiritual anticipation and preparation for the giving of the Torah on Shavuot.
I was introduced to the upsherin ceremony and Lag B’Omer in the U.S. by my son and daughter-in-law, Etai & Caroline Goldenberg. Although they are not religious, they love Jewish traditions, customs and celebrations and live in a religious area in St. Louis. The mitzvah of hair cutting became a personal experience for me when my first grandson, Leo had his first haircut at an upsherin (or kalacha) ceremony on his third birthday. Leo (Leonard Mordechai Goldenberg) had grown a beautiful strawberry blonde mane, apropos to his namesake and animal symbol, the lion.
The word upsherin means “hair-cutting” in Yiddish. It is an age-old custom to allow a little boy’s hair to grow untouched until he’s three years old, and on his third Jewish birthday, to invite friends and community members to a festive haircutting ceremony. In Israel, it’s called a “chalakah” (a word derived from Arabic). According to Chabad.org, “The root of the upsherin is a verse in the Torah which compares man to a tree. Just as the Torah requires that newly planted fruit trees grow unharvested for three years and then have their fruits offered to G d, the tradition calls for leaving a boy’s hair uncut.”
The upsherin ceremony marks a new stage in a child’s life, an intellectual coming-of-age and the passage from babyhood to childhood. The upsherin is the introduction to the beginning of a child’s formal Jewish education. For religious families, a kipah and tzitzis will be given and now worn on a daily basis. Because it is an introduction to the commencement of Hebrew study, Hebrew letters are dipped into honey. The child licks the honey on each of the letters while they are read so that Torah study will be sweet.
Our second grandson, Ami, (Amichai Barak Goldenberg) was born on April 23, Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, which falls during the counting of the Omer. His upsherin of locks was cut on Lag B’Omer when he was three years old. His celebration was held at their neighborhood synagogue incorporating all the Israeli traditions of bonfires, bar-b-q, bow and arrows, and other games. His haircut ceremony included dipping the letters into honey, as well as joyous singing and dancing.
This year, we were introduced to different hair-cutting experience, not an upsherin, but a ceremony of its own. Leo grew his hair for donation.
We look forward to our third grandson, their fourth child, Elie’s (Eliezer Yochanan) haircut in two years when he will turn three.
Unfortunately, Lag B’Omer 2021 festivities were marred. Last year, tragedy struck on Har Meron on Lag B’Omer. Hundreds of people were trapped in a narrow passageway and fell on top of each other. Police officials said the incident was centered on a slippery walkway, with a metal floor, where crowding was critical. Over 150 people were injured, dozens in serious condition, and 45 were dead after a stampede at the largest religious gathering held in Israel since the COVID outbreak.
The wounded were rushed to various hospitals in the country. Several arrived via ambulance and helicopter at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem which provided psychological assistance to victims and their families. On the first Shabbat after the tragedy, three patients remained at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem, with many others in hospitals around the country.
We pray that this Lag B’Omer will be a safe, peaceful, and joyous celebration.