Peeling back the layers of Lag Ba’Omer

Peeling back the layers of Lag Ba’Omer

Happy Lag Ba’Omer! What, you might be asking, is that? The easy answer is it’s today — 18 Iyar, May 26 (this year) — and a day of picnics, bonfires, bows and arrows, weddings — and haircuts!

It is also one of those days on the Jewish calendar that is like an onion, with each peeled layer revealing another layer of meaning. In that way it is, perhaps, the quintessential Jewish holiday.

The literal description: It’s the 33rd day of the Omer (the word means a “sheaf of wheat” and derives from sacrifices brought to the Holy Temple in ancient Jerusalem) — the 49 days that are counted from the second night of Pesach until Shavuot, the holiday that marks the Israelites’ receiving the Torah at Sinai, seven weeks after leaving slavery in Egypt. We count the days of the Omer as a spiritual progression from the afflictions of bondage to the Torah that defined national and religious freedom.

Another layer: It was the day that saw the end of a plague that decimated the students of Rabbi Akiva in the second century — so Lag Ba’Omer took on a mantle of happiness in the midst of what is regarded as a period of semi-mourning. (The period also became associated with post-Easter massacres of Jews in the Middle Ages.)

During the Omer, many of the hallmarks of mourning attach: no simhas or parties and no haircuts, etc. Some lift these customs solely on Lag Ba’Omer; for others, the day marks the end of the mourning practices. 

But wait, here’s another layer: That “plague” may actually have been a kind of code the rabbis used to refer to a legendary uprising against their Roman oppressors led by Bar Kochba, Rabbi Akiva’s mentor — so Lag Ba’Omer can also be viewed as a victory, albeit temporary, of the Jews.

And one more: The day is also the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The second-century sage survived the massacres and continued to live in a cave, studying Torah and mysticism. Some credit him as the author of the Zohar, a main text of the Kabala. (Academics attribute the work to Moses de Leon, a 13th-century Spanish rabbi and kabalist).

Bar Yochai is said to have told his disciples to mark the date of his passing with joy. 

So on Lag Ba’Omer, Israelis visit the northern town of Meron, where Bar Yochai is buried, and light bonfires and sing hymns. Those celebrating the day have picnics and shoot bows and arrows to commemorate the passing victory against the Romans. As the mourning is lifted, couples get married and generally make merry.

It’s also the day people who follow the custom of not cutting a child’s hair for the first three years of life choose for the first shearing.

But that’s another story, and requires a different onion.

The bottom line is Lag Ba’Omer is a day of rejoicing, so put away your onion, and celebrate!

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