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Why we celebrate Lag B’Omer

This article suggests that the rationale for our celebration of Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Sephirah, is to celebrate ראשית צמיחת גאולתינו, the first blossoming of our redemption, a term that has become familiar to many Jews mainly because it is used when we provide liturgical thanks to God for having facilitated the creation of the State of Israel.

Yevamot 62b discusses the origin of Lag B’Omer after a discussion of the verse in Qohelet 11:6, which states:

ו  בַּבֹּקֶר זְרַע אֶת-זַרְעֶךָ, וְלָעֶרֶב אַל-תַּנַּח יָדֶךָ:  כִּי אֵינְךָ יוֹדֵעַ אֵי זֶה יִכְשָׁר, הֲזֶה אוֹ-זֶה, וְאִם-שְׁנֵיהֶם כְּאֶחָד, טוֹבִים. 6 In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thy hand; for thou knowest not which shall prosper, whether this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.

Yevamot 62b follows its citation of this verse by claiming that it applies to Rabbi Aqiba:

רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא אוֹמֵר: לָמַד תּוֹרָה בְּיַלְדוּתוֹ — יִלְמוֹד תּוֹרָה בְּזִקְנוּתוֹ. הָיוּ לוֹ תַּלְמִידִים בְּיַלְדוּתוֹ — יִהְיוּ לוֹ תַּלְמִידִים בְּזִקְנוּתוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״בַּבֹּקֶר זְרַע אֶת זַרְעֶךָ וְגוֹ׳״. אָמְרוּ: שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר אָלֶף זוּגִים תַּלְמִידִים הָיוּ לוֹ לְרַבִּי עֲקִיבָא מִגְּבָת עַד אַנְטִיפְרַס, וְכוּלָּן מֵתוּ בְּפֶרֶק אֶחָד, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁלֹּא נָהֲגוּ כָּבוֹד זֶה לָזֶה.

Rabbi Aqiba said:  If one studied Torah in his youth he should study more Torah in his old age; if he had students in his youth he should have additional students in his old age, as it is stated: “In the morning sow your seed, etc.” They said by way of example that Rabbi Aqiba had twelve thousand pairs of students in an area of land that stretched from Gevat to Antipatris in Judea, and they all died in one period of time, because they did not treat each other with respect.

וְהָיָה הָעוֹלָם שָׁמֵם, עַד שֶׁבָּא רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא אֵצֶל רַבּוֹתֵינוּ שֶׁבַּדָּרוֹם וּשְׁנָאָהּ לָהֶם: רַבִּי מֵאִיר, וְרַבִּי יְהוּדָה, וְרַבִּי יוֹסֵי, וְרַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן, וְרַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן שַׁמּוּעַ, וְהֵם הֵם הֶעֱמִידוּ תּוֹרָה אוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה.
And the world was desolate of Torah until Rabbi Aqiba came to our Rabbis in the South and taught his Torah to them. This second group of disciples consisted of Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosei, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. And these are the very ones who upheld the study of Torah at that time.

Rabbi J. J. Schachter doubted that cessation of the plague that killed 24,000 students of R. Aqiba could be a reasonable explanation for the enormously joyful celebration that is associated with Lag B’Omer, an occasion not for merely moderate bonheur but for massive bonfires (please pardon my alliteration). He suggested that the rationale for joy on Lag b’Omer cannot be to celebrate the end of the plague that had killed 24,000 students of Rabbi Aqiba but must be to celebrate the renewal of the Torah and its resilience, thanks to the magnificent way that R. Aqiba managed to teach Torah to five great rabbinic survivors.

I suggest that Rabbi Aqiba’s ordination of five rabbis was an example of ראשית צמיחת גאולתינו, the first blossoming of our redemption, and is comparable to the establishment of the State of Israel after the Shoah, a blossom that anticipates a fruit, just as when we make ברכת האילנות, the blessing we recite over blossoms during the month of Nissan, we bless God for the blossoms He produces not for the fruit that the blossoms have not yet become. Indeed according to most halakhic decisors, the ברכת האילנות, may not be recited once the fruit has started to grow!

The deaths of 24,000 of Rabi Aqiba’s students have been attributed to אסכרא, ascara, a disease that, like diphtheria, causes hoarseness. I think this medical detail is a literary reflection on the threat of extinction that faced the תורה  שבעל פה, oral law, due to the death of  24,000 students of Rabbi Aqiba’s students. On Lag B’Omer we celebrate the preservation of the oral law seventeen days before we celebrate, on Shavuot, God’s Sinaitic gift to Israel of the תורה שבכתב, written law. When we celebrate Lag B’Omer we are actually celebrating the survival of the תורה שבעל פה, oral law, thanks to the five students whom R. Aqiba ordained in a process that was ראשית צמיחת גאולתינו, the first blossoming of our redemption.

In addition, I would like to suggest that the same concept of ראשית צמיחת גאולתינו, the first blossoming of our redemption, explains the Haggadah’s incomplete response to instructions given by the Mishnah in Pesahim 10:4  regarding what we should read when reciting the Haggadah. This Mishnah instructs us to base the Haggadah on a midrashic reading of the complete Deuteronomic text that the Israelite must recite when bringing the first fruit to the temple that they will build in a place that God would choose,  Jerusalem. The Mishnah states that the person who recites the Haggadah should  do the following:

וְדוֹרֵשׁ מֵאֲרַמִּי אוֹבֵד אָבִי, עַד שֶׁיִּגְמֹר כֹּל הַפָּרָשָׁה כֻלָּהּ, And he should midrashically expound from the passage: “An Aramean tried to destroy my father” (Deuteronomy 26:5)  until he concludes the entire section.

We actually do not apply the process to the text’s last two verses, Deut. 26:9-10:

ט  וַיְבִאֵנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וַיִּתֶּן-לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ. 9 And He hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

י  וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת-רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתָּה לִּי, יְהוָה; וְהִנַּחְתּוֹ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ. 10 And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which Thou, O LORD, hast given me.’ And thou shalt set it down before the LORD thy God, and worship before the LORD thy God.

Surprisingly enough, despite the Mishnah’s command, we do not conclude the complete text recommended by the Mishnah despite its explicit instruction to complete it. We omit any reference to the last two verses, Deut. 26: 9 and 10.  I think that one reason for this omission is that the Haggadah by means of the omission, tries to make us regard our liberation from Egypt not as a fruitful redemption process but as ראשית צמיחת גאולתינו, the first blossoming of our redemption.  By omitting the two verses that mention the land of Israel and the first fruits, the Haggadah causes us to regard our exodus as the blossoming of our redemption rather than its first fruit,, just as,  millennia after the Haggadah was composed, we regard the establishment of the State of Israel when we thank God in our liturgy.  We apply to our exodus redemption the very same ראשית צמיחת גאולתינו rationale which, according to my analysis, generated  Lag B’Omer.

In addition I think this rationale explains an astonishing statement in Jer. 23:7:

ז  לָכֵן הִנֵּה-יָמִים בָּאִים, נְאֻם-יְהוָה; וְלֹא-יֹאמְרוּ עוֹד חַי-יְהוָה, אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. 7 Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that they shall no more say: ‘As the LORD liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.’

As Rabbi Dr. Beni Gesundheit suggests, quoting Abarbanel’s comment on Jeremiah’s s astonishing suggestion that Jeremiah  is not predicting a downgrading of the importance of the exodus from Egypt=== which ironically would be as anomalous as joyfully celebrating the end of a pandemic in which 24,000 talented rabbis died!—but suggesting that it should be seen as the first blossoming of our redemption. Indeed this is surely also the rationale for reading the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, which I presume is to teach us about the process that produced King David, who was surely ראשית צמיחת גאולתינו, the first blossoming of our redemption. Despite the instructions provided by Mishnah Pesahim 10:4, the haggadah omits  any explicit  reference to the  land of Israel and its first fruits in haggadic  exposition of the Deuteronomic text recommended by Mishnah  Pesahim 10:4.  This  omission contrasts with our failure to  ignore ראשית צמיחת גאולתינו, the first blossoming of our redemption, on the day that we celebrate the gift of the תורה שבכתב, written law, the festival of Shavuot, when we read the entire book of Ruth, up to and including its reference to David in its final word. It also contrasts with the way that we  do not ignore the revival of the תורה שבעל פה, oral law, by Rabbi Aqiba’s five students, who were ראשית צמיחת גאולתינו, the first blossoming of our redemption of the oral law,  when we celebrate Lag B’Omer.

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, in Episode 260 of his Bible 365 podcasts, “Every Individual a Temple,” pointed out that Rabbi  Aharon Lichtenstein,  asking the question: “Why do on the fast day of the Tenth of Tevet mourn the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem?” How can the beginning of a siege be the rationale for a fast day? He answered his question by saying that we must remember the cause of past disasters.    Hearing this, it seemed to me that Rabbi Lichtenstein may have been implying that it is as important to remember the causes of our failures as to celebrate ראשית צמיחת גאולתינו, the beginning of the blossoming of redemption, before the redemption bears fruit.

About the Author
Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored "Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel." He can be reached at gershonhepner@gmail.com.
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