Lag B’Omer: Jews count 33rd day in the Omer with bonfires, parades

Lag BaOmer, New York

Lag B’Omer in Brooklyn, NY. Photo by Several seconds, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, MAY 18: Enormous bonfires blaze against the night sky across Israel and in Jewish communities worldwide, for Lag B’Omer (or Lag BaOmer; spellings may vary). During daylight hours, celebrants venture outdoors for picnics and children’s activities, while the commemorations of Lag BaOmer are twofold: the holiday marks the end of an ancient plague and, duly, the passing of the mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. On Lag BaOmer, thousands of Jews gather in Meron, Israel, at the tomb of Bar Yochai.

s'more Lag B'Omer

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Literally 33rd day in the Omer, Lag BaOmer marks traditional anniversaries in the Jewish calendar. Between Passover and Shavuot, Jews are, per the Torah, obligated to count the days. (Learn more from Judaism 101.) The omer is a unit of measure, and each night from the second of Passover until Shavuot, Jews recite a blessing and count the omer in both weeks and days. During this period, men and women recall a plague that struck during the time of Rabbi Akiba; haircuts, weddings and parties are put on hold. On Lag BaOmer, the mourning restrictions are lifted.

Fun fact: S’mores are permitted on Lag B’Omer! Read more at Aish.com.

The Talmud relates that during the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, a plague hit Rabbi Akiva’s disciples, because of their disrespectful conduct toward one another. On Lag BaOmer, the dying ceased and, among the surviving students, was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Later, he became the most esteemed teacher of the Torah in his generation. He penned the classic mystic text, the Zohar, still revered by those who study Kabbalah. Today, the importance of love and respect is emphasized on Lag BaOmer, as is the great “light” that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai brought to the world.

Some also are emphasizing Lag BaOmer as an anniversary of the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Roman Empire. In Israel today, Lag BaOmer is marked in varying ways. In 2004, the Israeli government began designating Lag BaOmer as a day for honoring the Israeli Defense Forces reserves.

Lag BaOmer: Jewish bonfires honor Shimon bar Yochai

Tall bonfire in background with dark shadows of people in foreground, at night

A Lag Ba’Omer bonfire burns in Tel Aviv, Israel. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET SATURDAY, MAY 17: With Lag BaOmer (English spellings vary), Jewish families enjoy a day of joy in the midst of the solemn seven-week period of Counting the Omer (a period of days after Passover).

Families pack picnic lunches, young children receive their first haircut and the initial weddings of the spring season commence, as Jews far and wide recall the death anniversary of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a Mishnaic sage known for sharing secrets of the Kabbalah. For the symbolic light that Rabbi Shimon brought to the world on this, the 33rd day of the Omer, enormous bonfires are lit. (Wikipedia has details.) Hundreds of thousands of devotees gather annually at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon, in Meron, Israel.

COUNTING THE OMER (AND A RECIPE)

In this week’s FeedTheSpirit column, Bobbie Lewis explains the idea of “Counting the Omer” in fairly simple language. She provides lots of fascinating background on the observance, including this: “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.” Click on the link to Bobbie’s column to read more—plus she provides a tasty recipe for barbecue chicken wings on the grill. Mmmmm. Mmmmm.

You may also be interested in a simplified and annotated edition of the Zohar for general readers from our friends at Jewish Lights Publishing.

In Israel today, many also recall the Bar Kokhba revolt against the the Roman Empire, and the Bar Kokhba rebels who lit bonfires to relay messages—despite being forbidden to do so.

In the news: In response to requests by pilgrims and visitors, improvements are being made to accommodate persons visiting the site at Meron, where Shimon bar Yochai is buried. Read more here.

Need tips on building a proper bonfire? Look no further than this article, which is complete with tips from a Jewish Boy Scout.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)