Lag B’Omer, a Jewish holiday, begins at sundown on May 13 and continues May 14.
Laughter, music, Israeli dancing (rikudim), playing with bows and arrows, bonfires and roasted potatoes are some of the memories that we associate with this chag, which comes right in the middle of Sefirat haOmer – the counting of the Omer, which we began to count on the second day of Pesach and count each day for seven weeks right until Shavuot. Hence its name “Lag”, (the Hebrew letters equivalent to the number 33) “B’Omer” of the Omer.
What It Means
Lag BaOmer is always on the 18th day of the month of Iyar. So what’s up with the name? The word “Lag” is made of of the Hebrew letters lamed (ל) and gimel (ג), which together have the numerical value of 33. “BaOmer” means “of the Omer.” The Omer is the counting period that begins on the second day of Passover and culminates with the holiday of Shavuot, following day 49.
Hence Lag BaOmer is the 33rd day of the Omer count, which coincides with 18 Iyar. What happened on 18 Iyar that’s worth celebrating?
What We Are Celebrating
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who lived in the second century of the Common Era, was the first to publicly teach the mystical dimension of the Torah known as the Kabbalah, and is the author of the classic text of Kabbalah, the Zohar. On the day of his passing, Rabbi Shimon instructed his disciples to mark the date as “the day of my joy.”
The chassidic masters explain that the final day of a righteous person’s earthly life marks the point at which all their deeds, teachings and work achieve their culminating perfection and the zenith of their impact upon our lives. So each Lag BaOmer, we celebrate Rabbi Shimon’s life and the revelation of the esoteric soul of Torah.
Lag BaOmer also commemorates another joyous event. The Talmud relates that in the weeks between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot, a plague raged among the disciples of the great sage Rabbi Akiva (teacher of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai), “because they did not act respectfully towards each other.” These weeks are therefore observed as a period of mourning, with various joyous activities proscribed by law and custom. On Lag BaOmer the deaths ceased. Thus, Lag BaOmer also carries the theme of loving and respecting one’s fellow (ahavat Yisrael).
- All over the world, it is customary to spend the day outside, enjoying the natural beauty of G‑d’s world.
- Children customarily go out into the fields and play with imitation bows and arrows. This commemorates the midrashic tradition that no rainbow was seen during Rabbi Shimon’s lifetime. Rainbows first appeared after Noah’s flood, when G‑d promised to never again devastate the world. When the world is deserving of punishment, G‑d sends a rainbow instead. Rabbi Shimon’s merit protected the world, rendering the rainbow superfluous.
But not everything is as up front as the explicit do’s and don’ts of the Torah. Beyond them lie the ambiguities of intent and motive, the subtleties of love and awe, the interplay of ego and commitment; the taint of evil that shadows the most holy of endeavors, and the sparks of goodness that lie buried within the darkest reaches of creation. How are we to approach these challenges, so distant from our sensory reach and so elusive of our mind’s comprehension?
This is where the mystical dimension of Torah comes in. It guides us in a retreat to our own essence, to the very core of our soul. It illuminates the selfless heart of the self, the spark of G‑dliness within us that is one with its Creator and His creation. From there we unleash the power to deal with the most distant and obscure adversary; from there we catapult our redeeming influence to the most forsaken corners of G‑d’s world.