We really didn’t have any Bonfires this year because of the Virus, but before we forget about Lag B’Omer lets ask why celebrate it with Bonfires? While counting the Omer has its roots in the Torah, the origin of Lag BaOmer is less clear. In fact, Lag BaOmer is not mentioned in Rabbinic literature until the 13th century, although the tradition itself is obviously much older.
The first reference to Lag BaOmer is made by the Meiri, a preeminent medieval scholar, in his commentary on the Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 62b. This section of the Talmud relates a tragic story about Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Jewish leaders of his time. Rabbi Akiva, the Talmud tells us, had 24,000 students who died from a terrible plague all in one year during the Omer period. This plague was sent by God to punish the students for not showing each other proper respect. The Meiri relates a tradition that says this plague ended on Lag BaOmer.
The deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students were a great loss on many levels. For one, the loss of human life is always a tragedy. On top of that, these were incredible scholars who, had they lived, might have made unimaginable and irreplaceable contributions to Jewish learning and tradition. Additionally troubling is the fact that these great scholars showed each other so little respect, indeed, treated each other so terribly that it cost them their lives.
For all these reasons, Jewish tradition commemorates this event by treating the Omer as a period of partial mourning. Understandably, Lag BaOmer, the day this plague ended, deserves to be celebrated as the end of this mourning period – though certain communities continue to treat the days following Lag BaOmer as a period of mourning as well.
In truth, Lag BaOmer is about more than just the end of a national tragedy. It also marks the beginning of a new era. Despite the enormous loss of 24,000 students, Rabbi Akiva did not give up. He began teaching again. This time, his students amounted to just five men: Rabbi Meir; Rabbi Yehuda; Rabbi Elazar; Rabbi Nechemiah; and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Though small in number, Rabbi Akiva’s new students were remarkable in character and able to uphold the monumental task of carrying forward their teacher’s legacy and preserving Jewish tradition.
It is very fitting that Lag BaOmer falls between Pesach, which marks the exodus from Egypt, and Shavuot, which marks the giving of the Torah. On these holidays we celebrate the great miracles God performed for us and the guidance He gives us through the Torah. But we are not only passive recipients of God’s wisdom and the Torah.
Like Rabbi Akiva and his students, we are each responsible for carrying forward Jewish tradition and building a strong community founded, above all, on mutual respect for one another. Celebrating Lag BaOmer serves to remind us of our involvement in Jewish tradition and the important role each of us plays in preserving the Jewish people.
However, this explanation does not shed much light on Lag BaOmer’s famous bonfires. To understand this practice, we need to look at an alternative explanation found in Rabbinic literature for the meaning behind Lag BaOmer.
According to this explanation, Lag BaOmer marks the yahrzeit – the anniversary of the death – of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was one of Rabbi Akiva’s five students mentioned above. While all of Rabbi Akiva’s students influenced the future of Judaism, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai played a particularly important role in shaping Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah. He is said to be the author of the Zohar, the most important Kabbalistic text, and, whether this is true or not, it reflects what a significant figure he is within the Jewish mystical tradition.
According to tradition, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai dictated the Zohar from his death bed on Lag BaOmer. As he was speaking, a miracle occurred: daylight was extended so that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai could complete his dictation and share all of the mystical secrets he held.
To commemorate this extended daylight, as well as the “light” received from Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s teachings, we light bonfires on Lag BaOmer.
Lag BaOmer Traditions & Rituals
In addition to lighting bonfires, another popular tradition on Lag BaOmer is for children to play with bows and arrows.
To understand this practice requires some historical context. While the Talmud tells us that the plague (shades of the Corona!!!) killed Rabbi Akiva’s students, this may be a euphemism for a military defeat.
Rabbi Akiva, and many of his students, were deeply involved in the Bar Kochba revolt, a rebellion against Roman rule in the year 132 C.E. The leader of this revolt was Simeon bar Koseva, who many, including Rabbi Akiva, believed to be the Messiah. The revolt failed terribly, leading to the deaths of thousands of Jews and continued oppression under Roman rule. At this time, even talking about the rebellion could put one’s life in danger, which is perhaps why the Talmud does not refer to the rebellion explicitly but rather blames a plague for the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students. This would certainly help explain such a large number of deaths in such a short time span.
Some say that there was a short break from fighting on Lag BaOmer, which is a further explanation for why we celebrate on this day. Either way, the tradition to play with bows and arrows honors the bravery of the Jewish rebels who fought to the end for religious and political freedom.
Lag BaOmer is also a popular day for holding weddings in certain Jewish communities. Since the Omer is treated as a period of mourning, we refrain during this period from joyous activities such as holding weddings, listening to live music, or cutting one’s hair (except for this year). On Lag BaOmer these restrictions are lifted, and so these activities are enjoyed on Lag BaOmer with added joy.
There are also several popular songs associated with Lag BaOmer, some specially written for the holiday in honor of Rabbi Shimon, such as “Bar Yochi” and “Amar Rabbi Akiva Ashreichem Yisrael.”
Lag BaOmer in Meron, Israel
Probably the most exciting place to celebrate Lag BaOmer is at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Meron, Israel. Hundreds of thousands of Jews gather in Meron each year on Lag BaOmer. (except for this year) The highways are usually shut down and tents pop up all over the small town’s countryside.
According to tradition, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai requested that his students commemorate the anniversary of his death with celebration rather than sadness. Accordingly, Lag BaOmer in Meron is treated as a purely joyous day.
In addition to studying Zohar, reciting Psalms and participating in prayer at Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s tomb, there is live music, singing, dancing, feasting, and celebrating. Of course, one of the main events is the lighting of a bonfire at the great Sage’s tomb.
Other popular traditions in Meron on Lag BaOmer include holding Upsharins, the traditional first haircut for three-year-old boys, and a custom known as Chai Rotel. Chai Rorel refers to a measurement of liquid, equivalent to about 13 gallons. It is believed that contributing this amount of a beverage to the Lag BaOmer celebrations in Meron will bring to the giver a miraculous return. This practice is particularly popular among couples hoping to have children
A Little Something on the Side
One day, Nathan sits down at a table in “Minky’s Kosher Restaurant.” He’s never eaten there before but has such a fantastic meal that he decides he will always eat there. Being a friendly and generous person, he quickly becomes the restaurant’s favorite customer. Victor the manager even reserves a special table for him and every day over the next ten years, Nathan could be seen eating there.
But then business at Minky’s begins to fall off and Victor decides to do some marketing. He puts a notice in the window that reads:
COME INTO MINKY’S AND EAT WITH NATHAN IF OUR FOOD IS GOOD FOR HIM, IT MUST BE GOOD FOR YOU TOO
Business immediately picks up. All is going well again. But then one day, oy veh, Nathan doesn’t turn up and Victor begins to worry. When Nathan doesn’t turn up the next day either, Victor tries to call him, but gets no reply. Victor phones not only the local hospital but also Nathan’s daughter in Israel. But no one knows where Nathan might be.
When Nathan doesn’t turn up at the restaurant for the third day in a row, Victor panics. He’s just about to call the police when he looks out his window and sees Nathan on the other side of the street going into “Rokeys Kosher Restaurant.”
Victor immediately leaves his restaurant, crosses the road and goes into Rokeys. He spots Nathan at a corner table, goes over to him, and angrily asks, “What’s the meaning of this Nathan? Where have you been the last three nights? We’ve all been worried sick about you. Couldn’t you have called or something? And what on earth are you doing in here of all places? Didn’t I tell you that Rokey and I are bitter sworn enemies? What have you got to say for yourself?”
“Calm down Victor,” says Nathan. “I had a bad tooth ache the other day and went to see my dentist. He checked my tooth and said I needed a root canal. After removing the infected nerve, he gave me some pills and said it was very important that I eat on the other side for the next few days. So here I am.”