Contributed by Board Chair, Rabbi Cantor Anne Heath
The “Counting of the Omer,” which is a mourning period of sorts between Passover and Shavuot, originated as an agricultural tradition but became associated with tragic memories in Jewish history. Jews suspend the mourning period for one day during the Omer. This day, the thirty-third day of the Omer, is the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer. “Lag” is how to pronounce the abbreviation for the Hebrew word for “thirty-third.” In 2016, observance of Lag B’Omer will begin at sundown on May 25.
In the course of the long centuries of exile, the days between Passover and Shavuot have on many occasions been periods of distress and misfortune for the Jewish people. For example, in the Middle Ages, the Crusader massacre of the Jews of Jerusalem took place at this time. In Roman times, according to tradition, a great plague raged among the students of Rabbi Akiba during this period, coming to an end on the eighteenth of Iyar, which is Lag B’Omer. Another tradition concerns Shimon Bar Yochai, a distinguished disciple of Rabbi Akiba. Sentenced to death by the Romans for his participation in a revolt against them, he hid in a cave and did not come out until Lag B’Omer, when he learned that the enemy had been defeated. Because of the connection to Rabbi Akiba and his students, Lag B’Omer is known as the Scholar’s Festival, and Jewish children throughout the world hold special celebrations to mark the occasion.
Many synagogues hold picnics and outings on Lag B’Omer, with food, music, dance, sporting events (often in the form of the competitive Maccabiah), and other festivals. It is often the last social get-together before the summer vacation. Jewish weddings are often held on Lag B’Omer as well. Some synagogues hold a bonfire and cookout on Lag B’Omer which often includes Israeli singing and dancing.
In Israel, Lag B’Omer is a day for bonfire celebrations. The most famous is held at the village of Meron, near the northern city of Safed. Shimon Bar Yochai is said to be buried there, and huge crowds gather at his tomb for this very happy celebration. It is said that while Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was hiding in his cave he wrote a famous holy book of mysticism called the Zohar. On Lag B’Omer, many of the Hasidim study portions of the Zohar during the special celebrations at Meron.
Finally, some synagogue schools have turned Lag B’Omer into a day for honoring their religious school teachers. Special assemblies and parties are held, and awards are often given to the teachers.
The custom of children playing with a bow and arrow on Lag B’Omer is traced to the legend that rainbows did not appear during the lifetime of Shimon Bar Yochai because of his saintliness. A rainbow (“Keshet” in Hebrew) is a sign that the world would not be destroyed. Since Bar Yochai was so good, there was no need for the affirmation of the rainbow. The word for “bow” in Hebrew is the same as the word for “rainbow,” therefore children play with bows and arrows to remember Bar Yochai. Other people associate the custom with the traditions that the students of Rabbi Akiba deceived the Romans by carrying bows and arrows to pretend that they were hunting, when in fact they were studying Torah, which the Romans had forbidden.
Since the days preceding Lag B’Omer were traditionally considered days of mourning, and therefore haircutting and shaving were not permitted, Lag B’Omer became a time for youngsters to get their first haircut. Often their parents plied them with wine and sweets to celebrate this happy occasion. Since Lag B’Omer is a break from the mourning, people also choose to have weddings then, which are prohibited during the period from Pesach to Shavuot.
Some families use Lag B’Omer as the occasion for a family outing or picnic.