As Orthodox Jewish Communities of Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy prepare to celebrate Lag B’Omer on May 22, we are taking a look at the history of this holiday that occurs on the 33rd day of the Omer, the 49-day period between Passover and Shavuot. A break from the semi-mourning of the Omer, key aspects of Lag B’Omer include holding Jewish weddings, lighting bonfires, parades and getting haircuts.
The Omer is a time of semi-mourning when weddings and other celebrations are forbidden, and as a sign of grief, observant Jews do not cut their hair. Anthropologists say that many peoples have similar periods of restraint in the early spring to symbolize their concerns about the growth of their crops. But the most often cited explanation for the Jewish practice comes from the Talmud, which states that during this season a plague killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva‘s students because they did not treat one another respectfully. The mourning behavior is presumably in memory of those students and their severe punishment.
According to a medieval tradition, the plague ceased on Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer. As a result, Lag B’Omer became a happy day, interrupting the sadness of the Omer period for 24 hours.
The Talmudic explanation makes the most sense when put into historical context. The outstanding sage Rabbi Akiva became an ardent supporter of Bar Kochba, who in 132 C.E. led a ferocious but unsuccessful revolt against Roman rule in Judea. Akiva not only pinned his hopes on a political victory over Rome but believed Bar Kochba to be the long-awaited Messiah. Many of his students joined him in backing the revolt and were killed along with thousands of Judeans when it failed. The Talmudic rabbis, still suffering under Roman rule and cautious about referring openly to past rebellions, may have been hinting at those deaths when they spoke of a plague among Akiva’s students. Possibly, also, Lag B’Omer marked a respite from battle or a momentary victory.
Unrelated to Rabbi Simeon, the kabbalists also give a mystical interpretation to the Omer period as a time of spiritual cleansing and preparation for receiving the Torah on Shavuot. The days and weeks of counting, they say, represent various combinations of the sefirot, the divine emanations, whose contemplation ultimately leads to purity of mind and soul. The somberness of this period reflects the seriousness of its spiritual pursuits.
Though its origins are uncertain, Lag B’Omer has become a minor holiday. Children picnic and play outdoors with bows and arrows — a possible reminder of the war battles of Akiva’s students — and in Israel plant trees. It is customary to light bonfires, to symbolize the light Simeon bar Yohai brought into the world.
And every year, numerous couples wed at this happy time.