Lag B'Omer

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah                                                               for her neshama.
By Shayna Hulkower

We've already discussed how we are in the midst of a special time in the Jewish Calendar - Sefirat HaOmer. We are counting up to Shavuot, when the Jews received the Torah. None of the 49 days are really celebrated in a special way, with one exception - the 33rd day, known as Lag B'Omer because the number 33 written in Hebrew is לג. Like most things in Judaism, there isn't just one reason that we celebrate this day, let us explore. 

Firstly, it is the yahrzeit, the anniversary of the death, of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, also known as the Rashbi. As you'll remember, all of Rabbi Akiva's students perished in a plague during the time between Pesach and Shavuot, 24,000 of them. After the plague ended, which some say occurred on Lag B'Omer, he took on five new students - one of which was the Rashbi. (There is another opinion that the 'plague' all the students died from was actually swords of the Romans during the Bar Kochba rebellion, when the Hebrews living in Israel tried to force out the Roman Empire. They were ultimately unsuccessful, and the destruction of the Second Beit Hamikdash eventually ensued, but there is an idea that on Lag B'Omer the tides turned and the Jewish forces were actually successful for a short while) The Rashbi is credited with writing the Zohar, or at least dictating it to one of his students on his deathbed. For all of these reasons, the 33rd day of the Omer is celebrated by Jews all over the world.

So how do we celebrate this day? There aren't any customary foods like hamentaschen or latkes. There aren't any special brachot (blessings) we say like Hallel. The prevailing custom is to build giant bonfires. This is done everywhere Jews live in Israel, but the biggest celebration, and the biggest fires, are in Meron, in northern Israel, where Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai is buried. While this might be fun, we can also wonder what is the source of this custom. There are a few explanations. The first is that Torah is compared to fire, and the Rashbi brought much Torah into this world. Also, as Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai was delivering the deep insights of Kabbalah, the house was said to be filled with light and fire (light symbolizes Torah and holiness, when Moshe Rabbeinu came down from Mount Sinai after receiving the Torah light shone from his face). It is also said that the sun didn't set on the day of the Rashba's death until he had finished giving over all of this wisdom. Lastly, fire is special, because no matter how many wicks are lit from the same candle, the fire never diminishes. The same is true of Torah - by spreading Torah the information in the world only continues to grow, therefore the bonfires can also be seen as a celebration of the light of Torah shining and growing in this world. 

There is also a custom for children to play with bows and arrows. This is attributed to the fact that bows symbolize rainbows (having the same shape), and it is said not a single rainbow was seen during Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai's lifetime. That might seem unworthy, or even a little sad considering how beautiful rainbows are. However, if you consider what rainbows represent in Torah - they are a sign G-d made to the world that he won't destroy everything through a giant flood like He did in Noah's time, we can see maybe this is a blessing. 

Who was Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai that his death should be celebrated in such a spectacular way? During the time of the Roman occupation in Israel, it was forbidden to teach Torah. Most scholars continued to do so in private, but the Rashba wasn't about to be intimidated. He blatantly taught in public, along with his teacher Rebbi Akiva. Rebbi Akiva was arrested and sentenced to a tortuous death by the evil Roman Emperor Hadrian. The Rashbi was forced to flee, and joined by his son, hid in a cave in the Galilee in northern Israel. It is told that miraculously, a spring of water appeared and a carob tree grew, so that they had food and water. For 13 years the sage and his son stayed in the cave, and discovered the deep secrets of Torah, which today is called Kabbalah. After 12 years, a heavenly voice called out to Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son, saying it was safe to come out. As they exited the cave, they were so judgemental of the simple Jews they saw working their farms, that they actually shot fire out of their eyes (talk about an evil eye!). G-d's voice called down to them and said, in so many words, I didn't let you leave the cave to come out and kill my people, go back to the cave until you can learn how to behave. A year later he ventured out again and was able to look at the people going about their business with joy and love. 

Accidental combustions aside, Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai is attributed to have said many words of wisdom about how important it is to treat others with love and respect, such as, "It is better to jump into a fiery furnace than embarrass someone in public," and "To deceive anyone with words is worse than cheating them out of money." These are important words to keep in mind, always, but especially during these 49 days when we are trying extra hard to work on ourselves. 

No comments:

Yashar LaChayal

The majesty of the Western Wall

Nefesh B'Nefesh