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Lag BaOmer

The History of Lag BaOmer

Lag BaOmer is a minor, festive holiday that falls on the 33rd day of the seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot, a period of time is known as the Omer. (The numerical value of the Hebrew letter lamed is 30, and the value of gimel is three; lamed and gimel together are pronounced “lahg.”) This holiday gives us a break from the semi-mourning restrictions (no parties or events with music, no weddings, no haircuts) that are customarily in place for some Jewish communities during the Omer.

The Omer has both agricultural and spiritual significance: it marks both the spring cycle of planting and harvest, and the Israelites’ journey out of slavery in Egypt (Passover) and toward receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai (Shavuot). An omer (“sheaf”) is an ancient Hebrew measure of grain. Biblical law forbade any use of the new barley crop until after an omer was brought as an offering to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Book of Leviticus (23:15-16) also commanded: “And from the day on which you bring the offering…you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete.” This commandment led to the practice of the S’firat HaOmer, or the 49 days of the “Counting of the Omer,” which begins on the second day of Passover and ends with the celebration of Shavuot on the 50th day. Lag BaOmer commemorates a variety of historical events, including the end of a plague that killed many students of Rabbi Akiva (c. 50-135 C.E.), the yahrzeit of 2nd-century mystical scholar Shimon bar Yochai, and a Jewish military victory over Roman forces in 66 C.E. In remembrance of these events, some people celebrate with picnics and bonfires. Many couples in Israel choose to get married on Lag BaOmer, and many people also choose to wait until that day to get a haircut or beard trim.

Customs

Many of our Jewish holidays are based on the agricultural calendar of our ancestors, including the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover (Pesach), Shavuot and Sukkot. There is an interesting connection between Pesach and Shavuot when we count the Omer (a harvesting unit of measure), starting the second night of Pesach until Shavuot, essentially marking the time from the barley to the wheat harvest. As in all agrarian societies, if the weather pattern deviates, it can be disastrous for the community. This is a precarious time, when everyone prays for positive results. Since our ancestors saw this as a somber time, there are many prohibitions during this 49-day period, including no weddings, parties or haircuts.

The one exception during this solemn period is Lag BaOmer-the 33rd day of counting the Omer. “Lag” is from the Hebrew letters lamed and gimel. Lamed has a numerical equivalent to 30, and gimel has the numerical equivalent of 3-thus the 33rd day. There are different reasons given to explain why this date is special. One rationale is that the plague that brought about the death of thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped on Lag BaOmer. The plague was supposedly due to their lack of respect for one another. There is also the claim that Lag BaOmer is the yahrzeit of one of Rabbi Akiva’s most famous students-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who is said to have authored the mystical writings of the Zohar-the text of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). In Genesis 9:13, God bestows the rainbow on humanity as a sign of God’s promise to never again flood the earth. Legend says that no rainbows were seen during the lifetime of Rabbi bar Yochai; his understanding of Torah was so great that he was considered a living sign of God’s covenant, rendering the rainbow superfluous. In Hebrew, the word for rainbow and the bow used in archery is the same – keshet. So,  in honor of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, archery is practiced on Lag BaOmer, a day of celebration and joy amidst the mournful seven weeks surrounding it.

Among those who observe the somber days during the Omer, Lag BaOmer is a day of wedding celebrations. During the time of the counting of the Omer there are bans on parties, music and dancing, similar to the prohibitions for a person in mourning for a loved one. For those who wish to marry in the spring, this is the only day on which one can celebrate. Many Jews also do not cut their hair during this time period. Boys, at the age of 3, often have their first haircut on Lag BaOmer, with much festivity surrounding the event.

Lag BaOmer celebrations are generally outdoor adventures, including bonfires, fun and frolic with teaching. Especially in Israel, people young and old will be outside sharing a picnic and enjoying the beautiful day; school children celebrate with a “field day.” The bonfires lit in celebration are supposed to symbolize the light of Torah.

How can we honor and rejoice on Lag BaOmer? Take time to study a new Jewish text, learn a new ritual you can bring into the rhythm of your days, find a new idea that brings meaning to your life. Have a picnic with family and friends, and take time to appreciate all that surrounds you in the world. Celebrate all that Judaism brings to enrich your life.

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