On May 23, of this year many tens of thousands of Jews in Israel will light bonfires, and the Hasidim will cut their three year old son’s hair for the first time, as they celebrate Lag B’Omer.
For many, Lag B’Omer is a joyous respite from the Orthodox tradition of mourning between Passover and Shavuot. But neither the festivities of the day, nor the sadness of the seven weeks, have their origins in any of Judaism’s authoritative texts. How did Lag B’Omer become a period of semi-mourning? Both the mourning rituals and Lag B’Omer seem to commemorate events surrounding the second-century sage Rabbi Akiba ben Yosef the convert.
The Vilna edition of the Babylonian Talmud (Yevamot 62b) recounts, “Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples; and they all died between Pesach and Atzeret [Shavuot] because they didn’t treat each other with respect.” So on Lag B’Omer, Jews celebrate the day on which the students stopped dying. But the Talmud says nothing about commemorating their deaths.
From 132 C.E. to 135 C.E., Shimon Ben Kosiba, also known as Shimon Bar Kokhba, led a revolt against the Romans. Rabbi Akiba believed that Bar Kokhba would prove to be the Messiah, and supported him. Indeed, the Romans were forced to retreat, and Bar Kokhba ruled Israel for two years. It was the first significant victory since the destruction of the Second Temple, in 70 C.E.
Clearly, Akiba’s students and others, inspired by Akiba’a proclamation that Bar Kokhba was the Messiah joined the soldiers fighting the Romans and died by the thousands. In the tenth century, Rav Sherira HaGaon, explained that the students did not die in a plague, but in a “shamda,” a government-sponsored persecution. Shamda appears in the Spanish versions of Yevamot 62b.
Rav Sherira HaGaon’s explanation is more consistent with Talmudic accounts. Yet the custom most associated with mourning — not marrying — might have been adopted from the Romans who during Lemuralia, the Roman month of May, believed the ghosts of the dead returned to disturb the living and did not marry. This superstition subsequently migrated to France and Germany. Within Jewish communities, the practice can be traced to the ninth century, but it was not widespread until the 12th century, and never became universal.
So Akiva’s students died in battle and not from a plague; although war, especially a lost war, is indeed a plague.
Until the 17th century, there is no evidence that Jews celebrated Lag B’Omer. Only with the followers of Isaac Luria, the father of Lurianic Kabbalah, did the day become one of celebration in honor of the death of Shimon Bar Yochai, whom most Orthodox Jews believe wrote the Zohar.
I think Jews should celebrate converts appreciation day on Log B’Omer, or the Shabbat closest to Log B’Omer.
After all Rabbi Akiba’s father was a convert to Judaism. Most Jews, and even most Rabbis, do not know that the famous Rabbi Akiba was the son of a convert.
But Rambam in his Introduction to the Mishneh Torah, Seder HaDorot; tells us that “Rabbi Akiba ben Yosef received Torah from Rabbi Eleazar the great. Yosef, his father, was a righteous convert.”
And the plague that was killing Rabbi Akiba’s students occurred because many of Akiba’s students and followers disrespected other students who were themselves converts, or who had parents who were converts to Judaism,
Lacking the missionary impulse of more universalistic religions like Buddhism and Islam, Jews react to potential converts in varied ways, ranging from wariness to encouragement. Practical community concerns guided some of our sages like Rabbi Helbo who said that converts are an irritation like an itch, a sore or a scab.
Perhaps Rabbi Helbo felt that the enthusiasm and idealistic expectations of converts irritated too many born Jews, who take their Jewishness much more casually. Or maybe he agreed with Rabbi Isaac who said “Evil after evil comes upon those who receive converts”.
Both these Rabbis lived in the early 4th century when the Church was vociferously attacking pagans who choose to become Jews rather than Christians. Perhaps they feared Christian anti-Semitism if Jews were openly receiving converts. But although Jews stopped encouraging non-Jews to become Jewish; Anti-Semitism continued unabated.
On the other hand, Rabbi Simon ben Lakish proclaimed that a convert to Judaism is more beloved to God than all the Jews who stood at Sinai.
Perhaps he was reacting to those Jews who claimed Jewishness was in their noble genes. Or perhaps he very much admired anyone with the courage to join an endangered minority people.
Equally amazing were Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat and Rabbi Yohanan who both taught that the forced exile of the Jewish people among the Gentile nations was really a God given opportunity to influence many Gentiles to become Jewish.
And the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) condemns those who push potential converts away by relating that Isaac and Jacob pushed away Timna the sister of Lotan who wanted to become Jewish. She then married a son of Esau. One of her descendants was Amalek who attacked Israel shortly after they escaped from Egypt.
If, instead of being pushed away, Timna had become Jewish, Amalek would have been on our side, and not one of our enemies. A more practical view is hard to imagine. It should guide all rabbis today in the State of Israel who deal with potential converts.
Indeed, Rabbi Yohanan says the Jews were oppressed and enslaved in Egypt because Abraham didn’t try to influence some captives that he rescued to become Jewish. Even failing to encourage potential converts is wrong according to Rabbi Yohanan.
The Talmud also says Jews suffered the great damage of being enslaved in Egypt because Abraham failed to give some non-Jews an opportunity to convert. (Neddarim 32a)
“Rabbi Abbahu said in Rabbi Eleazar’s name: Why was our Father Abraham punished and his children doomed to Egyptian servitude for two hundred and ten years?… R. Yohanan said: Because he prevented people from entering beneath the wings of the Shechinah (converting to Judaism), as it is written, ‘The king of Sodom said to Abraham: Give me the people, and take the property for yourself’ (and Abraham agreed). (Genesis 14:21)
Thus. when Rabbi Yohanan says the Jews were oppressed and enslaved in Egypt because Abraham didn’t try to influence some captives that he rescued to become Jewish; he means that even failing to encourage potential converts is wrong. These are practical, not theological, reasons to seek converts and not to push away those who might be interested.
Rabbis today should welcome potential converts and not discourage them. We may not be saving souls, but by rejecting people who want to be Jewish, we may be making them or their descendants into future enemies, at a potential great cost to our descendant’s.
When one encourages non-Jews to become Jewish one does a Mitsvah that can produce benefits for many generations to come. Welcoming non-Jews into the Jewish people is a Mitsvah that keeps on giving.
Log B’Omer would be a good time to honor the tens of thousands of non-Jews people who have become Jewish, and to plan activities encouraging Jews to promote conversion to Judaism.
The plagues of modern Jewish life could also be reduced if more Jews encouraged open minded non-Jews to learn Hebrew and study Torah.