18 Iyar 5778 / May 2, 2018
An omer refers to an ancient Hebrew measure of grain, amounting to about 3.6 litres. Biblical law forbade any use of the new barley crop until an omer was brought as an offering to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Book of Leviticus (23:15-16) also commanded: "And from the day on which you bring the offering…you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete." This commandment led to the practice of the Sefirat Ha'omer, or the 49 days of the "Counting of the Omer". The omer is counted from the second day of Passover and ends on Shavuot.
Lag b'Omer is the shorthand way of saying the thirty-third day of the omer. It is celebrated to commemorate the day a plague ended in which thousands of students of Rabbi Akiba, a Talmudic scholar, died during the Counting of the Omer. The period of counting is traditionally observed as a period of mourning. The mourning, however, is set aside on Lag b'Omer, making it day of special joy and festivity.
Bring Lag b'Omer Home with You!
Lag b’Omer is a minor Jewish holiday that falls in the period between Pesach and Shavuot on the thirty-third day of Counting the Omer (S’firat ha-Omer). The name Lag b’Omer means 33 of Omer. The letter “Lamed” in Hebrew numerology is “30” and “Gimel” stands for the number “3”. S’firat Ha-Omer is the 49-day period between Pesach and Shavuot. Traditionally, each day of the Omer is counted on a daily basis. This is a time of semi-mourning when Jews are supposed to follow certain limitations such as to restrain from shaving and cutting their hair. Weddings are forbidden as well—except on Lag b’Omer itself. Moreover, 33rd of Omer is considered to be one of the best and the luckiest dates in the Jewish calendar to get married.
The significance of S’firat Ha-Omer - the period of mourning, has several explanations. According to some anthropologists, other peoples follow similar periods of restraint in the early spring, which symbolizes their concern about the growth of their crops. Nonetheless, the most common explanation for the Counting of Omer derives from the Talmud: during this season a plague killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva's students because they did not treat one another respectfully. The period of mourning between the two festivals is presumably in memory of those students and their severe punishment. According to the sages, the plague ceased on the thirty-third day of the Omer. As a result, Lag b’Omer became a happy day, interrupting the sadness of the Omer period for twenty-four hours.
After the death of many of Rabbi Akiva's students, he taught just 5 students. Among them was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who later became the greatest teacher of Torah in his generation. Bar Yochai is purported to have authored Sefer Ha-Zohar -- the landmark book of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. The 33rd day of Omer is considered to be the day of Shimon bar Yochai’s Yahrtzeit. Our tradition teaches that on the day of Bar Yochai's death, he revealed the deepest secrets of the Kabbalah. This day is seen as a celebration of the giving of the hidden, mystical Torah through Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, as a parallel to Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the revealed Torah through Moses. In addition, during the Middle Ages, Lag b’Omer became a special holiday for rabbinical students and was called the "scholar's festival." It was customary to rejoice on this day through various kinds of merrymaking.
Lag b’Omer is not mentioned in the Torah and only hinted at in the Talmud. Consequently, there is no formal ritual, but rather a series of customs that people have found to be attractive and meaningful.
Along with numerous weddings that take place on Lag b’Omer, it has become a day when three-year-old children get their first haircuts in traditional circles. Parties and picnics abound, and in Israel, hundreds of people attend midnight bonfires and many children carry little bows and arrows. The most common custom for celebrating Lag b’Omer is the lighting of bonfires throughout Israel. This is a joyful festival, although it does not have a major significance for non-observant Jews.
Spring is the time for a picnic, even if you can’t have a bonfire in Manhattan. Take your family to a park and celebrate the season out of doors. However, if you happen to be on a beach or someplace where you can have a bonfire, by all means go for it. It’s a Jewish way of welcoming the season without any other kind of ritual, and there is something special about a bonfire late at night. This is not a major festival, and it doesn’t require a lot. But it’s a great connection to your history and to Israel, and a wonderful excuse for a lovely day in the park.