As a child growing up in America, the Jewish holiday Lag B’Omer (which falls today this year) was just a minor holiday. We had school on that day, but it was an extra fun day, usually in a park, and if we were lucky, we attended a bonfire at night. Certain names and customs were associated with the day, but although I had an excellent Jewish education, I had a very poor grasp on what the day was all about.
When I first came to Israel as a college student, I witnessed Lag B'Omer on a completely different level. Someone told my friends and me to take a bus through the streets of Jerusalem and see the sights of the many bonfires throughout the holy city. And indeed, it was a sight to behold. These were unlike any bonfires I had ever seen. Some of these fires were higher than the bus. Wood, even old furniture, was piled as high as possible in order to create the greatest fire and the brightest light. Witnessing this strange custom on street corner after street corner was dazzling, but it left me with more questions about this holiday. What was this obsession with fire really about?
As a mother now living in Israel, I can attest to the fact that for my kids, this is no minor holiday. From the moment Passover ends until Lag B’Omer weeks later, kids can be seen excitedly dragging tree branches, carrying old chairs, or shoving pieces of wood into shopping carts, and stock-piling them in preparation for the holiday.
On the night of Lag B’Omer – and I learned this the hard way – you must close all of your windows here in Israel. The vast amount of bonfires fills the air with smoke and ashes. Jewish holidays begin at night and continue into the following day, so the day after the nightlong bonfires is a day off of school in observance of this holy day.
So, again, you are probably asking what this is all about.
It’s no wonder I never had a simple cut and dry answer as a child because, in truth, the answer has many layers – starting all the way back thousands of years ago to when the Israelites came out of Egypt.
Fifty days after the Exodus, the Israelites received the Torah at Mount Sinai. Tradition teaches that the Israelites were so excited to receive God’s Word that they counted, in joyful anticipation, each day until the event. That event – the receiving of the Torah and God’s revelation on Sinai – is celebrated in one of the three pilgrim festivals, Shavuot, or Pentecost. This time, at its inception, was a series of seven joyful weeks leading up to the grand moment of revelation.
The Bible adds another layer to this time. In Leviticus 23, we are instructed: “From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord” (vv.15-16). This means that the day after the first day of Passover, a sheaf, omer in Hebrew, was brought as an offering. After 50 days, a new grain offering was offered. This adds an agricultural aspect to the time, and clues us in to why this time is referred to as the omer, but does not take away from the celebratory feeling of this period.
The Death of the 24,000
Yet, centuries later, this time was transformed. It happened decades after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, which took place in 70 CE. Rabbi Akiva was the leading spiritual leader of the time. He had 24,000 students who carried the responsibility of Jewish continuity upon their shoulders as the nation faced exile and assimilation. Then, one year, from the time that began the omer until the 33rd day of the counting, all 24,000 scholars died of a mysterious plague sent from God. Not one was left.
The Talmud, Judaism’s oral tradition, teaches that the reason for the plague was that these great scholars did not properly respect and love one another. These scholars were to be the link between the Temple times and the long exile, known as the Diaspora. All of the Jewish Torah and traditions were to be remembered through them. Their loss was a loss not just of life, but also of the Jewish way of life. They were the keepers of the faith and the teachers of the tradition. And just like that, they were gone.
Since that time, the first 32 days of the omer have become a time of mourning. Among other observances, Jews do not hold weddings, listen to live music, or get haircuts as a sign of mourning until this very day. On Day 33, however, the plague stopped. In Hebrew, the number 33 is represented by two letters that spell “lag.” This is why the 33rd day of the counting of the omer became known as Lag B’Omer, “the 33rd day of the omer.”
The Light of God’s Word
The story does not end there. Rabbi Akiva was still alive. His life’s work – the teaching and preparation of 24,000 illustrious scholars – was gone. But Akiva did not give into despair. In his old age, he began his mission anew, this time with just five students. These five students would bear the weight of ensuring the continuation and knowledge of God’s Word and the Jewish way of life. As the Jews went into exile, this was a serious crossroads for the people of Israel. These five men held the key to the future.
The greatest of the five students was a teacher by the name of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. According to tradition, on the day that he died, he taught Torah as he had never taught before. The teaching was so intense that a supernatural fire surrounded his home. This fire represented the light and power of God’s Word. It is also said that the unity of the students in attendance is what made the fiery teachings possible and rectified the mistake of the 24,000 that died. That day – when Rabbi Shimon taught with such passion and fire, the day of his death – was, coincidentally, Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the omer.
Which leads us to the bonfires of today that take place on the eve of Lag B’Omer. They are a representation of God’s light and the light of the Bible. This is why many Jews feel that the bigger the fire, the better (and yes, the firefighters are on hand in case of emergencies). The flames all over the Holy Land are a dramatic display of the light of God’s Word. They affirm our belief that God’s Word is the light of our lives – that guides us, inspires us, and informs our way of life.
One Person with One Heart
One more thing. Many kids and adults will sit around the fire, roasting marshmallows and hot dogs, singing songs, and telling stories. In the context of this mysterious holiday, we can appreciate the significance of this display of camaraderie. If dis-unity caused us to lose scholars and Torah knowledge, then unity is the way to receive it. Lag B’Omer is a necessary step on the journey in preparation for receiving God’s Word on Shavuot – the essence of this time period from the outset.
When the Israelites received the Torah, the Jewish sages say that they were like “one person with one heart.” Just imagine what might be possible when we come together and unite in what we believe. “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1).
Alone we are each a small flame; together, we are a great light and a glorious fire that can illuminate the world.
-by Yonit Rothchild, a Fellowship writer in Israel