In Israel, Sunday is a regular workday. The “weekend” is the Sabbath; it starts at noon or mid-afternoon on Friday and lasts through Saturday. If you live in Israel and follow the traditions for the Sabbath and holy days, your weekend is spent preparing for the Sabbath or observing the Sabbath, which means no driving, cooking, or using money (and that includes credit cards).
So in Israel, minor holidays like Lag B’Omer – which this year falls on Sunday, May 18 – are important. They’re a day off, but they carry none of the restrictions prohibiting work, travel or other everyday activities. Lag B’Omer is a weird holiday because no one really knows where it came from or what it means. The first mention of it is in a 13th century text, where a scholar mentions that on this day a plague that killed 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva – one of the great sages in Jewish history – stopped. Another tradition says that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a great sage of the second century, revealed the secrets of the Kabbalah, Jewish mystical teaching, just before he died on Lag B’Omer.
The name refers to the date of the holiday. An “omer” is a sheaf of barley. In Leviticus (23:15-16), the Israelites are told to make an offering of an omer on the second day of Passover and then to count 50 days until Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. The period is known as the Omer. On the second night of Passover, we begin “counting the Omer.” Every day at evening services, we say “Today is Day Six (or whatever) in the Omer.” In the ancient Hebrew system, letters were used for numbers; the letter signifying 30 sounds like “L” and the letter for 3 sounds like “G,” and together they sound like “lag”.” So the 33rd day of the Omer became known as Lag B’Omer.
A break in a period of semi-mourning
Other than counting, not much happens during the period of the Omer, except it’s traditionally a period of semi-mourning. No weddings or other joyous events are scheduled during this time, and many men don’t shave or cut their hair. Lag B’Omer marks a break in that depressing stretch of time.
In the Middle Ages Lag B’Omer became a holiday for rabbinic students, when they engaged in outdoor sports. Today it’s a great day for holding picnics, barbecues and sporting events. And because it’s the only day during the 50-day Omer period when weddings are permitted, it’s considered an auspicious day to start a marriage; in Israel, hundreds of weddings take place. On Lag B’Omer, people light bonfires in fields and open spaces to remember Rabbi Shimon and the light he brought to the world. Hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Jews gather at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon on Mount Meron in northern Israel for an enormous bonfire.
The other big Lag B’Omer custom is for children to play with bows and arrows (often rubber-tipped), though again no one knows why. Maybe the bow represents a rainbow, God’s sign that he would never again destroy the world with a flood. Jewish lore says the rainbow was not seen during Rabbi Shimon’s lifetime, because his merit was great enough to protect the world. After his death, we again needed the rainbow. An alternative explanation for the bows and arrows is that anti-Roman rebels led by Simon Bar Kochba achieved a minor victory on Lag B’Omer, before being utterly crushed by the Romans. Some say those 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva actually fell fighting the Romans.
Gadna, the Israel Defense Forces’ youth brigade, was founded on Lag B’Omer in 1941 and has a bow and arrow as its emblem.
I thought a barbecue recipe would be appropriate this week, in honor of Lag B’Omer and also because it’s finally getting warm enough in Michigan and other northern climes that we can hope we might once again be able to enjoy outdoor activities.
This recipe for Asian-style barbecued chicken wings is quite easy and makes a nice break from the traditional tomato-based barbecue sauces.