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The urban myths of Lag BaOmer

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai didn't die on the 33rd, no plague ended that day, and the holiday isn't very old: Now, let's party!
An ultra-Orthodox man watches a bonfire celebrating the Lag B'Omer holiday in May 2013. (photo credit: Photo by Flash90)
An ultra-Orthodox man watches a bonfire celebrating the Lag B'Omer holiday in May 2013. (photo credit: Photo by Flash90)

This weekend, thousands of Israelis are trekking to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai at Mount Meron to celebrate Lag BaOmer, the thirty-third day of the counting of the Omer. The annual pilgrimage turns the slopes of the mountain into a tent city dotted with bonfires. Like many religious celebrations, the holiday attracts those who come to pray, and those who come to party. Yet neither prayers nor parties on this popular day have their origins in Jewish law or custom.

First, Lag BaOmer celebrations are only a few centuries old. No evidence suggests that Jews celebrated Lag B’Omer before the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. At this time, the followers of Isaac Luria, the father of modern or Lurianic kabbalah, decided to transform the day into one of festivity. They held celebrations in honor of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whom they believe died on this day.

Nevertheless, what became the widespread attribution of his death to the thirty-third was the result of a printing error. In the 1802 printing of Peri Etz Chaim in Dubrowno, the text refers to “she-met” (“that he died”), but the original 1785 edition uses the word “samahh” (“was joyous”). The difference between life and death could be found in confusion over one letter, when the Hebrew Het in one edition became a Tav in the next.

Second, even if Bar Yochai really died on the thirty-third, there is no precedent for celebrating a death. None of the Jewish holidays, major or minor, celebrate the deaths of any of the great sages. And even though Bar Yochai was a great sage, the date of his death was never mentioned in the Talmud. When Jews honor the deaths of the departed, they fast. Interestingly, as a result of the celebration of Bar Yochai’s death, subsequent generations of Jews largely abandoned the custom of fasting on the anniversary of their parents’ deaths.

Third, the story of Rabbi Aqiva’s students, which is the alternative justification for Lag BaOmer, is not connected to the thirty-third. Rabbi Aqiva, according to medieval French versions of Yevamot 62b, had 24,000 students who died from a plague because they did not treat each other with respect. According to “tradition,” his students stopped dying on the thirty-third. Nevertheless, we know from the more reliable medieval Spanish versions of the same page that his students died from a “shmada,” a government- sponsored religious persecution.

Since Hadrian, the Roman ruler of that time, had banned circumcision and had promised to dedicate the construction of the third temple to Jupiter, Jews were indeed facing a “shmada.” Rabbi Aqiva ardently believed that Shimon Ben Kosiba, a.k.a. Bar Kokhba, was the messiah and would overthrow Hadrian. Despite initial success, Bar Kokhba ultimately failed in his attempt, and thousands of Jews were killed. Clearly, the students who died weren’t Rabbi Aqiva’s classroom pupils, but soldiers fighting religious and national persecution.

As for the origins of the number thirty-three, even when the date of both Bar Yochai’s death and the end of the plague are cast into doubt, many rabbis still arrive at this number via additions and subtractions involving the number of working days, holidays, Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh days, etc.

The Roman tradition, however, seems to offer the most compelling and simplest explanation. After thirty-two days of mourning during the month of Lemuralia, the Romans celebrated on the thirty-third day by marrying. This custom of mourning and marrying slowly made its way to France and Germany, where it was eventually adopted by Jewish communities.

Yet even the most authoritative Jewish legal compendium, Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, neglects to mention either Lag BaOmer or the custom of mourning. This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t gather together, light fires, drink, party or pray, but it does suggest that their motivation for doing so should be for the pure joy of it, rather than the fetishization of death.

About the Author
Shayna Zamkanei earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. Her dissertation is entitled, "The Politics of Justice for Arab Jews."