Lag B’Omer Celebrates Jewish Heritage and Resilience
Lag B’Omer is one of the minor Jewish holidays, suspending the traditional mourning restrictions, such as wedding celebrations and the inability to cut ones hair, on the Hebrew calendar during the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. In Judaic custom, the holiday is named after Hebrew numerology; this joyous festival falls on the 33rd day of the Omer, hence the name, Lag B’Omer. To understand the importance of Lag B’Omer, we must first understand the Omer and its significance.
In the Hebrew Bible, the Omer corresponds to the period between the Exodus from Egypt and the deliverance of the Torah. During this time, a young nation emerged from slavery and oppression, preparing itself physically, psychologically, and spiritually for the great events at Mount Sinai. The period of the Omer is a bridge that connects Passover and Shavuot, two of the three major holidays when the ancient Israelites would pilgrimage to the temple. Shavuot, the Hebrew word for “weeks,” refers to the Jewish festival marking the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
The frequently asked question is: why do we celebrate Lag B’Omer? The renowned scholar, Rabbi Akiva was a sage of the Mishna, the written works of the oral Judaic law, around 100 CE. Rabbi Akiva is credited with collecting written and oral texts to form the interpretations for the Hebrew Bible, all of which have exerted powerful influences still used today.
The story is told that Rabbi Akiva, having become a central pillar of teaching, amassed a following of 24,000 students. He preached proper love and true respect. When his devotees did not do this, an epidemic plague occurred during the first 32 days of the Omer, claiming almost all the students’ lives. However, no students died on the Lag B’Omer.
On Lag B’Omer, we mourn the memory of the students of Rabbi Akiva who died. We also mourn for the lost possible history that died with the 24,000 disciples during the first 32 days of the Omer.
Perhaps, this story is a parable rabbis use to discuss a horrific historical scene. Rabbi Akiva believed that another famous rabbi of the time, Bar Kokhba, was the true Messiah. Bar Kokhba led an unsuccessful revolt against Roman rule in Judea, in 132 CE. Many of Rabbi Akiva’s students joined Bar Kohba in the revolt and were murdered when it failed. The rabbis under Roman persecution had to be cautious about referring to rebellions, and may have created the story of the plague that stopped on Lag B’Omer to hint at the deaths sustained during the Bar Kohkba revolt.
The third reason for the celebration of Lag B’Omer among Jewish holidays is its significance as a new period for Rabbi Akiva. He established a new venue for his legacy, including the famous revolutionary Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, known as Rashbi. Rashbi continued to defy Roman rule and fled for his life, spending 12 years hiding with his son in a cave. While hiding, Rashbi continued studying Torah, concentrating specifically on its hidden, mystical dimensions. Rashbi is said to have died on Lag B’Omer, and to have reveled the secrets of the Torah to his students before his passing.
Lag B’Omer celebrates the re-establishment of Rabbi Akiva’s legacy, which sustains commitment to Torah study and the observance of the laws. If not for this re-establishment, there would be no Torah, no observance, and no Judaism.
The end of the mourning period is observed (and celebrated) on Lag B’Omer, because it allows us to remember that mourning is temporary. With time, a person becomes stronger and more resilient. It is one of those few Jewish holidays that allows us to internalize the depths of destruction and gives us a fresh awareness of the resilience of our peers.
Lag B’Omer is a time on the Hebrew calendar for reinforcing unity, for developing an appreciation that Torah study is a joint effort, not an individual one. The more we learn to appreciate this, the more the fountains of Torah open up and hydrate people’s thirst for observance.
This Lag B’Omer, Everlasting Footprint encourages everyone to celebrate the unity and resilience of the Jewish people. It is important to remember the crux of this holiday: Lag B’Omer teaches that pain and suffering does not last forever, but that legacies are everlasting.