Counting to 33: The Lag B’Omer Mystery

Counting to 33: The Lag B’Omer Mystery

Before I began the research for this article, if someone would ask me to tell them about Lag B’Omer (ל״ג בעומר), the most I would be able to tell them is that it was a joyous celebration that occurred in the middle of the counting of the Omer (described below). During this time Jews were allowed to have parties, weddings, and picnics.  However, the more I researched, the more I became confused as to the why we celebrate at all.

Counting the Omer

In the Torah, the Jewish people are commanded to count the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot.  This time period is called counting the Omer (or Sefirat HaOmer in Hebrew), since the counting of each day is done out loud. During the counting period, Jews undergo a period of mourning in remembrance of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva that died during a plague in the 2nd century (scholars place the time period at approximately 135 ACE). During these forty-nine days \there are no parties, weddings, or joyous celebrations. However, there is one exception to this rule, on the thirty-third day of the counting, Jews may have fun and experience glee for this twenty four hour period, until they must again put aside their party attire for another 2 ½ weeks. This day is known as Lag B’Omer.

Why Mourn During the Omer?

In order to understand why Jews celebrate during the thirty-third day of the Omer, once must first understand why they mourn during the other 48 days. The counting of the Omer is spelled out in the Torah in Leviticus 23:15-16, and although there is a list of rules pertaining to sacrifices and offerings, there is nothing about it being a period of mourning.

The period of mourning is said to have begun in remembrance of the death of 24,000 students of the famed Rabbi Akiva during the mid-2nd century. This is according to the Talmud in a passage by Meiri (Yevamot 62b), written during the 13 century. The Talmud blamed the plague as a punishment by G-d, because the students did not respect each other. [Fast Fact: It was alsoreported that only five students survived, one of the survivors was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.]

This time period also corresponds to the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt (approx. 132-135 ACE).  The revolt was a series of attacks against the Romans, who controlled the land of Israel, destroyed the Holy Temple, and tried to squelch the practice of Judaism. In about 132 ACE, Shimon Bar-Kokhba, with the support of Rabbi Akiva, organized thousands of Jewish soldiers that began to take back many of the former Israeli strongholds.  In 135 the Roman commanders brought in 12 legions of soldiers, which stopped the rebellion, but not until after thousands of Jews were killed.

 

Why Don’t We Mourn During Lag B’Omer?

Most religious scholars state that the reason Lag B’Omer is celebrated as a joyous day because it remembers the day that the plague that killed most of Rabbi Akiva’s students had ended. However, others believe that this celebration might have begun to memorialize either a huge victory during the Bar Kohkba revolt (during 135, when they were greatly outnumbered), or a day where there was a respite from the fighting. There might be more of a connection to the two stories than is seen on first glance.  During the Roman rule, they censored much of what was written by their “citizens.”  To write about the revolt at that time would have meant punishment to the author(s).  A few scholars have deduced that the rabbis of the time wrote about the revolt, and death of the students/warriors under the guise of a plague so their writings would not be confiscated and destroyed by the Roman occupiers.

Another reason given for celebrating on Lag B’Omer is that it is the anniversary of the great tzadik (righteous one) named Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (the same Yochai mentioned above, whom survived the plague).  It is also the day that is remembered for the reason that Rabbi Yochai, on his death bed, revealed the secrets of the Torah (called the kabbalah) and were recorded on that day, and which were eventually entered into a book entitled the Zohar (the “Book of Splendor”).  [Fast Fact: This anniversary date is also sometimes called Yom Hillula in the Zohar, it differs from a yahrzeit (anniversary of a person’s death), in that it is not marked by mourning, and it is specifically for Rabbi Yochai.]

Questions

Although my research into the origin of Lag B’Omer (and the counting of the Omer) has provided me with some answers, it also raised many more questions about the holiday and its customs. For instance:

  • Why isn’t there any mention of the holiday between the occurrences of its events the 2nd century and its mention in the Talmud in the 13th century – over 1,000 years later?
  • Why do we mourn the loss of Rabbi Akiva’s students for many weeks, while other tragedies like the Holocaust or the Spanish Inquisition do not receive remembrance for so long of a time period?
  • Why do we remember the passing of Rabbi Yochai with happiness, while the anniversary of one’s death is usually met with mourning?

Due to space and time limitations, I am unable to discuss the many various answers that scholars and rabbis have provided, but for now, I will leave these questions as something for you think about, or to conduct your own research.

 

Lag B’Omer Customs

There are various customs related to the celebration of Lag B’Omer.  First and foremost, the mourning period of the Omer period is suspended.  On this day many Jews will get married, have large celebratory parties, listen and dance to music, and get haircuts (which are all suspending during this period). In fact, many parents wait until this day to give their children their first haircuts (at about 3 years of age), which is called an upsherin in Hebrew (אפשערן).  The purchasing (or making) of new clothing is also suspended during this day (no guilt for going on a shopping spree). There are a number of other customs more closely related to the holiday, and relate to the various origins of this holiday, such as the following:

  • Lighting Bon Fires. The reasons for lighting them are as follows:
    • Extended day when Yochai died (the added hours allowed him to finish telling all of the secrets of the Torah)
    • Light = learning
    • To commemorate the Signal fires during the Bar Kokhba revolt
    • Rabbi Abba, who transcribed Rabbi Yochai’s words on his last day, describes the experience as “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 hisTallis, lying on his right side – and smiling.” (Zohar 3:291b)
  • Visit the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (thousands visit each year) [located on Mount Meron, near Safed, Israel]
  • Rabbinic students spend the day playing sports (a continuation of a custom begun in the Middle ages called “Scholars Day”)
  • Picnicking and taking field trips
  • Tachanun (part of the daily prayers) is not recited
  • Sephardim do not celebrate the 33rd, but the 34th of the Omer
  • Taking children out into the fields to play with bows and arrows (which may have a correlation to the Bar Kohkba revolt)
  • Eating carob – to remember the miracle of a carob tree growing at the entrance of the cave of Rabbi Yochai to hide him and his son for 13 years (the Romans had a death sentence against him)
  • Eating hard boiled eggs dyed with onion skins (the colors from the onion skins add a festive element to the dish, reminding us to rejoice for Rabbi Shimon’s life and teachings.)

Picnics & BBQs

Picnics are a great way to celebrate Lag B’Omer. From Yogi Bear to the common ant, everyone loves a picnic. The origin of the word picnic was most likely derived from the French word piquenique, whose first appearance in print was in the 1692 edition of Origines de la Langue Françoise de Ménage (the French word piquer means “to pick”), and described people that brought their own wine when eating out. The word picnic was not used outside France until the mid-1700s. By the early 1800s the term was expanded greatly to include the bringing of food to pot-luck socials (both indoors and out), and more specifically to the process of figuring out what dish or “pick” each person was going to bring to the gathering.  The word eventually evolved into describing pot-luck get-togethers, and then morphed into describing casual outdoor meals in general.

In my experience, a picnic can be anything from picking up sandwiches at a local deli and bringing them to the park to eat (on a bench, a blanket, or even in the car if the weather still is not great outside) to making my own sandwiches and side dishes to be placed in a basket (or cooler) and brought anywhere in the great outdoors. Back when I was an apartment dweller, a more “elaborate” picnic would include taking some chicken and steak along with a portable grill/hibachi for the purpose of grilling the meat over some charcoal. [Fast fact: Grilling is NOT BBQing. Grilling is cooking over a direct flame, while BBQing is a low (flame) and slow process that can take many hours.]

If you were wondering about the origin of grilling, it probably began sometime after our ancestors learned to control fire between one and two million years ago. The earliest evidence of a man-made fire from about a million years ago was found in a cave in South Africa. This kindled the flames of an old debate called the “cooking hypothesis.”  This is a theory that tries to explain why the brains of humans had begun to evolve quickly (from slight cognitive abilities to much more advanced thought processes) about a million and a half years ago.  The theory states that the consumption of meat by early humans provided the nutrients to allow the brain to evolve.  Cooked meat is digested quicker thereby providing more nutrients faster, and this provided the spark allowing the brain to evolve at an even more rapid pace giving rise to the homo sapien.  The higher intelligence helped our ancient forefathers to survive and allowed them to communicate for more efficient hunting.  For instance, back them even the cows were dangerous, the ancestors of today’s cows were called orex, and were wild and dangerous creatures, an resembled larger versions of bulls.

 

The Recipe

I love Thousand Island dressing on almost any deli meat, but what do you do if you run out?  Since you should not spend a lot of time preparing for a picnic, here is a very quick way to make a good tasting dressing (used in restaurants all across America):

Ingredients

1 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup chili sauce

1/3 cup relish

 

Directions

Mix all ingredients together and serve.

 

Keep on cookin’

Chef Lon

 

Sources

 

 

 

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