SUNSET WEDNESDAY, MAY 9: Be on the lookout for bonfires tonight—it’s an occasion for spiritual light among Jewish communities on Lag BaOmer.
Jewish families began counting time in segments the day after Passover—based on an ancient unit of measurement known as the Omer. Tonight’s holiday translates into the “33rd Day in the Omer.” For a variety of reasons, Jews take time to “light the light” and make merry tonight.
Though a traditional time of mourning, the Omer period between Passover and Shavuot takes a break on LagBaOmer, and the first summer weddings, haircuts, family picnics and parties are common activities much anticipated on Lag BaOmer day. (Learn traditions, customs and a multitude of perspectives at Chabad.org.)
A widely accepted reason for celebration today lies within the Talmud and Midrash, recalling Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. He lived and taught in the 2nd century as a follower of the great Rabbi Akiva. The traditional account holds that Rabbi Akiva had thousands of students, but many were jealous of each other. As a result, a plague descended. (Judaism 101 has more.)
The story goes that 24,000 students perished in the plague, leaving just five students; among the five was Rabbi Yochai. The plague ended on Lag BaOmer, and Rabbi Yochai went on to become a great teacher himself. Rabbi Yochai’s legacy doesn’t end with his teaching, though: it’s also told that he revealed the deepest secrets of the Kabbalah on his deathbed which, coincidentally, also occurred on Lag BaOmer. (Wikipedia has details.) Jews today recall the spiritual light that Rabbi Yochai revealed by lighting bonfires. The largest bonfire celebration takes place at Meron, in Israel, at the burial place of Rabbi Yochai and his son.
While bonfires used to be common only in Israel, more and more Jewish communities worldwide have been taking the cue and lighting the night in their own neighborhoods. (Check out some examples at JewishJournal.com.) Yet while some cities, such as in California, are hosting LagBaOmer hikes, barbecues, dances by bonfire and concerts, others are still facing conflict. The National Security Council Counterterrorism Bureau has strictly enforced a security advisory regarding the renowned LagBaOmer celebrations in Tunisia. (The Jerusalem Post has an article.)