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Lag B'Omer is an important part of our traditional Jewish observances connecting Pesach (which reminds us of our Exodus from slavery) to Shavu'ot (signifying our freedom from slavery through receiving the Torah at Har Sinai). As the name says, it is the 33rd day of the Omer count: The Hebrew letter ל (lamed) or "L" has the numerical value of 30 and ג (gimmel) or "G" has the numerical value of 3. A vowel sound is added for pronunciation purposes. LaG b'Omer is part of the traditional observances instituted at Leviticus 23:15: "You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to G-d."
The Torah commands counting the days from Pesach to Shavu'ot. This period is known as the Counting of the Omer. While biblically the period is one of joy and excitement about the soon acquisition of the Torah, the days of the omer are observed in a spirit of solemnity for reasons discussed below. Therefore during the annual count there are several traditions including the cessation of weddings, celebrations and parties of all kinds. Haircuts and other optional elements of grooming are also prohibited during the days of the count as a sign of our grief. During the period of the Omer Count many Jewish men who traditionally don't observe the halachic shaving prohibitions gradually become more furry as the days pass and their beards grow. Then comes Lag B'Omer, the one day during this period where these rules are suspended. Most Jews not only take advantage of this option, we revel in it and plan for the day for sometimes weeks in advance.
On Lag B'Omer Jews are encouraged to leave their mourning behind and go out into nature with family and friends for joyous thanksgiving celebrations. Traditionally children play with bows and arrows, women prepare sumptuous feasts and men light bon fires. For weeks before the event, Israeli children (especially) scavenge wood and arrange impressive structures, often 20 or 30 feet high for the big event. Great public celebrations are held as the wooden towers are set to flame. These celebrations occur throughout Israel and in many Jewish areas of the Diaspora.
Chassids especially love to visit Kefar Meron, Israel (near Tzfat/Safed) for these celebrations in memory of the great Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (aka "Rashbi"), the celebrated Jewish mystic of the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. According to our Tradition, when the Roman occupation forces outlawed Torah study throughout Eretz Y'israel, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai publicly rebuked the Romans. An arrest and death sentence was then issued against him. Hunted, Rashbi fled to Kefar Meron where he lived in a cave for twelve years with his son. There are many inspiring accounts of the austerities of Rabbi Shimon and his pious son Elazar, as well as accounts of miracles performed on their behalf by HaShem. For example, living as they did they had no food to eat nor water to drink, and so HaShem caused a carob tree to sprout within the cave, along with a stream of water that bubble up.
It is said:
Rabbi Abba, a student assigned with the job of transcribing Rabbi Shimon's words, reports: "I couldn't even lift my head due to the intense light emanating from Rabbi Shimon. The entire day the house was filled with fire, and nobody could get close due to the wall of fire and light. At the end of the day, the fire finally subsided, and I was able to look at the face of Rabbi Shimon: He was dead, wrapped in his Tallit, lying on his right side, and smiling." Each year Jews from around Israel light bonfires to commemorate the great fire that surrounded Rabbi Shimon.
According to our tradition, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai ordered his talmidim ("students") to mark the 33rd day of the Omer count, the date of his death, as "the day of my joy." This request has been honored ever since. Ahuva and I were in Israel on Lag B'Omer in 2013 and witnessed these bonfires from the Judean hills (from Alfei Menashe). They sparkled over the Holy Land below us as far as the eye could see. This was truly an awesome sight to behold. The lighting of these bonfires is a well established tradition throughout the nation of Israel, especially but not only among the Chassids, and around the globe.
Among his notable contributions to Judaism and Chassidut, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai restored the largely forgotten mystical aspects of Judaism after receiving specific approval and direction from the Heavenly Court to do so. The spiritual revitalization that followed the dark period of Jewish infighting (which had resulted in the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash in 70 CE) was short lived however. In time the majority of Jews again allowed their Torah observance to become rote and to wane. The Love of G-d was therefore obscured and cooled. As a result of this concealment, HaShem largely removed this knowledge from the world. We were not ready for it. We still aren't! As a result o this concealment, the inner or mystical teachings of Torah were mainly lost due to our collective unworthiness. Around 1500 years later this Wisdom partly reemerged at the hands of the Baal shems. These were the predecessors of the Baal Shem Tov (circa August 25, 1698 -May 22, 1760), the grandfather of our beloved Rebbe Nachman of Breslov ( April 4, 1772 - October 16, 1810).
A bit earlier however, during the days of the famed Spanish Kabbalist Moses de Leon (c. 1240 - 1305) there was a move to reestablish this knowledge to a cabal of seekers. These men however lacked the inner purity to peer beyond the surface levels of the understanding. Despite their notable contributions they failed to restore this Mystical Wisdom and the knowledge was further "concealed."
Later, the Ari (Rabbi Isaac ben Solomon Luria Ashkenazi, 1534 - July 25, 1572) received the Divine inspiration to restore this Mystical Wisdom, from a condensed Oral form he had received, to certain of our people lest it be lost to future generations. Unfortunately many unqualified people also received potions of these instructions and counterfeit Kabbalahs began to appear and spread.
After the Ari -- whose contributions to Jewish mystical thought can not possibly be over stated -- came several holy teachers and masters, eventually including, collectively, the men known as Baal Shems, i.e. Masters of the Name. From among these arose our master, The Baal Shem Tov or the BESHT, Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer. The Baal Shem Tov was born circa 1700 and left this plane of existence on May 22, 1760. The Baal Shem Tov, or "Master of the Good Name," established the modern Chassidic Movement and restored Mystical Jewish Wisdom to its proper spiritual foundation as the Loving, Heart-felt Service to HaShem and to the world. His memory is a blessing for all.
The talmidim or students of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the Ari, and the BESHT brought forward the oral teachings of their masters for future generations. This knowledge quickly spread among the Jews, especially those of Eastern Europe. Rashbi wrote only the first mishna of the Zohar personally. As with our holy Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (great grandson of the BESHT), it was the talmidim of these accomplished masters (most notably Reb Nosen in Rebbe Nachman's case) who elucidated and spread their sacred teachings for the world. We learn an important principles here. HaShem seldom sends true Masters to the earth. The blessings such people offer requires the word of those who receive their words. If the same way, it is incumbent upon all who are blessed to hear the words of the few rare tzadikim to spread them them far and wide. They have their jobs and we have ours.
So, on Lag B'Omer the Chassidim o the various sects are particularly aware of the mystical components of the Omer Count and the holiness of this 33rd day of the count.
Why is the otherwise joyous Counting of the Omer period observed with mourning? It is become HaShem has sent us so much truth and so many opportunities to return to Him and yet time and time again we fail to do so. Our communal failures saddens our hearts. It is true the Rashbi died during the Omer count, but he also said that Lag B'Omer would be remembered as the day of his Joy. So despite our mourning we enter into Rashbi's Joy on this one day. Otherwise the mourning aspect of these days reminds of us many things, including:
- According to one opinion in the Mishnah, the judgment of the wicked in Gehinnom (often translated as Hell) takes place between Passover and Shavuot so we mourn for their sakes, hoping for HaShem's Compassion, and we seek to strengthen our own souls. Note that Gehinnom is typically not accepted as a literal place of suffering and even for those who take it literally it is of but limited duration, usually 30 days. Gehinnom refers to the state of those who have died without taking advantage of their oportunity for spiritual growth. Concerned about the next life we dread what they may face. For more on Gehinnom and the afterlife see my study here.
- It is a time of severity and judgment pertaining to crops. This is one reason why the Omer offering was brought at this time. Through mourning we demonstrate our teshuvah and prayers for mercy and continued sustenance. Recall that in the Shema's third paragraph HaShem warns that if we disobey and dishonor Him He will withold the rain so that our crops and grasses will not grow. Through our mourning we seek forgiveness that our Land will be fruitful.
- From the First Christian Crusade to the Russian pogroms and blood libels to the "New Age" Nazi Shoah, to the attack on the San Diego CHABAD a few years ago, and through so many ongoing attacks against us the period between Passover and Shavuot has always been especially brutal for Jews, with entire communities and tens of thousands of Jews to the six plus millions killed. During the Count we mourn in remembrance of our innumeral martyrs even as we look to HaShem to restore us to His Torah and one day to send us HaMashiach ben David, may that day be soon even though we in no way merit it.
- Our mystics teach us that these days are days of judgment and severity and yet are also days of unimaginable potential, hence our Kabalistic reflections on Adam Kadmon.
However one of the main reasons we mourn is what to happened to Rabbi Akiva's 24,000 talmidim who were potentially lights that could have illuminated our Souls and lead to the Freedom of the Olam Haba. Instead, the Talmud reveals the following:It was said that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbatha to Antipatris; all of them died at the same time, because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate [of Torah] until Rabbi Akiva came to our rabbis in the south and taught them Torah. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua, and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A tanna taught: All of them died between Passover and Shavuot. Rabbi Chama bar Abba, or some say Rabbi Chiya bar Avin, said: All of them died a cruel death. What was it? Rabbi Nachman replied: Croup -- Yevamot 62b.An added element of our mourning is included here when one considers the four rabbis who were, through their mystical attainments, permitted to enter Paradise and return. We are taught that four great mystic sages entered the Pardes (literally "the orchard"), which is to say, Gan Eden. Rabbi Akiva was one of these sages. Rashi explains that these were all highly accomplished rabbis in Jewish mysticism. They "ascended" by utilizing the Sacred Four Letter Name of G-d as prescribed in certain mystical teachings. These sages were: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben Avuya (later called Acher, "the other one") and Rabbi Akiva.
After successfully attaining Gan Eden or Pardes, Ben Azzai gazed at the Divine Presence and died (according to Rashi). Ben Zoma was "harmed" or went mad, according to Rashi. Elisha ben Avuya/Acher became a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva returned with no apparent damage. Our texts says that, "Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace."
As one considers the mystical aspects of our annual Omer count we do well to remember the associates and talmidim of Rabbi Akiva. Jewish mysticism is not something to take lightly!
The tradition of kids playing with bows and arrows on Lag B'Omer commemorates the midrashic tradition that no rainbow was seen during Rabbi Shimon’s lifetime. Rainbows are a sign/assurance that HaShem will never again devastate the entire world as he did during the Day of Noah. During times of evil when the world is deserving of divine punishment, G-d sends a rainbow instead (which is why Jews typically will give no more than a glancing look at rainbows). While alive Rabbi Shimon’s merit was so great that it protected the entire world, rendering the rainbow superfluous.
The Hebrew word for "rainbow," keshet, refers to both the rainbow as well as the bow used in archery (in fact, the rainbow is called G‑d’s "bow." To demonstrate that after Rabbi Shimon's passing there is now a need for the sign of the (rain)bow, many have the custom to play with bows and arrows on this day.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that there must be a more positive reason for this custom as well, because the above reason draws attention to the fact that we unfortunately no longer have Rabbi Shimon’s merit and we therefore need the sign of the bow.
The Zohar tells us that before the coming of the Mashiach, an especially bright rainbow will appear in the sky, heralding the coming redemption. The Zohar explain that at present the rainbow appears in dull colors since it is only designed as a reminder that there shall be no return of the flood as there was in the days of Noah. At the time of the redemption, however, it will appear in its full panoply of colors as a reflection of the everlasting covenant G‑d made with His people. As the children of Israel raise their bows triumphantly they are testifying to the truth that on day this great Bow will appear and all of our enemies will be forever vanquished.
Since Lag B'Omer marks the passing of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who began revealing the inner dimensions and secrets of the Torah, it is the custom to play with the bow, symbolizing the especially bright (rain)bow that will appear to herald the final redemption.
Some have the custom of eating carobs on Lag B'Omer in honor of that miracle.
All of the prohibitions during the counting of the Omer period are suspended on this day. For this reason, many Jews will have haircuts, shave, marry, and so on on Lag B'Omer. For more on the Counting of the Omer see my study here: HERE.
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