We think of holidays as marking historical events; first come the events — and then the holidays, to remember them: July 4, for example, to remember American independence, or Passover to recall the Exodus from Egypt.
But sometimes holidays come first, and only afterward collect reasons for their being. Take Lag b’Omer, for example (it falls this Sunday).
Lag b’Omer is the 33rd day of the omer, the period of “counting” — sefirah, in Hebrew — from Passover to Shavuot. Tradition associates the sefirah with mourning: we do not marry then, for example.
The earliest explanation for the mourning goes back to a rabbinic legend according to which a plague wiped out 24,000 (or 12,000 or 3,000, depending on the source) of Rabbi Akiba’s students during the sefirah. But ninth-century Jews — who already did not hold weddings around that period — did not know why. The ninth-century Gaon, Natronai, is the first to connect it to the story of the plague.
The idea of some months being inauspicious for marriages goes back to the Romans, who banned weddings during May and early June (roughly the sefirah period). Jews probably picked up the Roman custom, and then centuries later wondered why. Natronai connected it to the Akiba legend.
Lag b’Omer is a holiday break from that mourning. But even Natronai still knows nothing about that. Lag b’Omer is first mentioned by Abraham Hayarchi of Provence (1155-1215), quoting Zerachiah Halevi of Spain (1125-1186), who says he saw it in an older, unnamed Spanish source.
It was not just Jews, however, who interrupted periods of mourning with a holiday break. Medieval Christians mourned Jesus’ impending death throughout Lent, for instance, but observed a day of celebration in the middle of it. By the time of Zerachiah Halevi (12th century), Jews had adopted that custom, too, but connected it, conveniently, to the legend of the plague ending on the 33rd day.
Other customs followed: lighting bonfires and playing with bows and arrows, for example. These, too, were not originally Jewish. They were May Day ceremonies that Jews adopted and applied to Jewish time. In the 16th century, Sefardi Jews in Israel began visiting the grave of Shimon bar Yochai, the second-century sage said to have written the Zohar. Visiting the graves of saints was commonplace among non-Jews in the area, too, but again, the custom was reinterpreted with specifically Jewish meaning.
Lag b’Omer thus collected one custom after another, some of them originally Jewish, others not — all of them efforts to give meaning to a day that people observed but were not sure why.
There is good reason to retain such days. They act as magnets, not just for customs and mythic explanations, but for channeling human aspiration at its best. At our best, we remember those who have died, honoring them by visiting their graves; at our best, we moderate our appetites in communal recollections of tragedy, but design similar occasions for communal celebration. At our best, we gather to celebrate greatness, and remind ourselves of what counts for greatness altogether: not military might, or worldly achievement (for instance), but learning (Rabbi Akiba’s students; then Shimon bar Yochai).
But what do we do in America, when Bar Yochai’s grave is far away; bows and arrows are child’s play; and bonfires are impractical, impossible, or even illegal? I take my cue from Maimonides, who did none of the above, but likened the omer to our love affair with God. Remembering God from Pesach, we count the omer as if anxiously numbering every day and hour in anticipation of being with God again on Shavuot.
Maimonides denied all personhood to God, but maintained, nonetheless, that God’s presence is real, patently at work whenever we know freedom and creativity, learning and loving.
This Lag b’Omer, I will set aside routine, at least briefly. I will envision Akiba and the Zohar and even a crackling outdoor fire reaching up to heaven to remind me of my rendezvous with God. I am never alone. I am part of eternity.