LIVE THE JEWISH CALENDAR
LAG B’OMER: MAY 12, 2009
“And from the day on which you bring the shear (omer) of waver offering – the day after the Sabbath – you shall count off the weeks.” Vayikra 23:15
In the Jewish calendar, Lag B’omer is considered one of the minor festivals. It has no special service and no particular ritual objects are associated with its observance. In fact, many scholars view it as more of a folk festival than a religious observance. The name Lag B’Omer is derived from the Hebrew letters “lamed-gimel” which have the numerical value of 33. Thus Lag B’Omer which falls on the 18th day of Iyar means “33 days in Omer”. In order to understand Lag B’omer, it is first necessary to know a little about the Omer. In Leviticus 23:15, we are instructed to count 49 days from the barley harvest at Pesach to the wheat harvest at Shavuot. This period is known as Omer. In ancient Israel , a omer or sheaf of barley was brought to the Temple as an offering. Two loaves of bread were prepared from this grain and eaten ritually. No one could eat bread of the new harvest until this ceremony was completed.
Although ritual offerings have long since ceased, Omer is still counted, beginning on the second night of Pesach and performed every evening at sunset. A blessing recalling the Biblical injunction is recited, and a prayer for the rebuilding of the Temple .
The period of Omer is also called the Sefirah, is a period of austerity and semi-mourning. The reason for this is has traditionally been attributed to the story that during this time, many disciples of Rabbi Akiva were struck down by a plague while they were engaged in a revolt under Bar Kochba against the Romans. However, there are many scholars who feel that the reason for this austere time goes back much further. Its origins are grounded in the folk custom of agricultural societies which regarded the time preceding the harvest as uncertain. The old was over, the new unknown; so this feeling of suspense and uncertainty expressed itself in curtailment of normal activities.
Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of Omer, is a break in the austerity of the Sefirah.
Several explanations for this day exist. One source says that the plague which decimated Akiva’s students, ceased on this day and a day of celebration was declared. Consequently, Lag B’Omer is also known as the “Scholar’s Festival”. Some writers feel that this festival commemorates a victory of Bar Kochba’s army over the Romans, while another source maintains that it was the occasion of an uprising of the Jews during the first Jewish revolt (66 C.E.).
On Lag B’Omer, Rabbi Akiva’s name appears again and again and although he is not directly connected with the day, his spirit seems to be part of the holiday.
Lag B’Omer was adopted by the Kabbalists of the late Middle Ages as a special holy day. They feel that it is the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. This mystic disciple of Rabbi Akiva is said to be buried at Meron, near Safed, so it is customary for a pilgrimage to be made to the site of his tomb. The Hasidim believe that the Rabbi departed this life in joy, so great bonfires are lit and night-long singing and dancing take place. It is also customary to visit the tombs of the other famous rabbis who are buried in this area.
Lag B’Omer is a day of respite from the mourning of theOmer, a day when we recall our history and our teachers, and the bond with our heritage is strengthened.