May 26, 2016
Note: Holiday begins sundown May 25.
As Pesach flows into Sefirat Ha’Omer, (the counting of the Omer), which leads into Shavuot, Jews commemorate the loss of thousands of the students of the great 2nd century sage, Rabbi Akiva. Because of their lack of respect for each other, the students were struck with a terrible plague. On the thirty-third day of the Omer, the plague ended, but nearly all of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students had perished. To commemorate the tragic loss of these Torah Scholars, 33 days of the Omer are marked as days of mourning, during which observant Jews refrain from marrying, shaving, cutting hair and listening to live music.
In Hebrew, every letter has a numeric value. The “lamed” equals 30, and the “gimmel” equals 3, thus the name: Lamed Gimmel (L”G) Ba’Omer, literally 33 (days) in the Omer.
Rabbi Akiva persevered after this great tragedy and continued to teach those students who had survived the plague, as well as new students. Of his surviving disciples, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is also deeply connected with the thirty-third day of the Omer. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai spent his life studying the Kabbalah, the hidden esoteric aspects of the Torah. According to tradition, on the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai finished revealing his teachings, recorded in the famed book, the Zohar. He died that evening, and was buried in the cave on Mount Meron, near Safed, where he had lived.
There are several customs associated with Lag Ba’Omer:
Bonfires: Families and friends gather together for a bonfire or a picnic on Lag Ba’Omer, often on Mount Meron. There are several reasons given for this custom. One is that the teachings of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai were compiled in the Zohar (which means shining light) and the bonfires bring light to the world.
First Hair Cuts: Many have the custom not to cut a boy’s hair until he is three years old, the age at which he first begins to learn Torah. Because this idea is tied into Kabbalistic thought concerning hair, many put off the ceremony, called an Upsherin, until Lag Ba’Omer.
Weddings: Because weddings are not held during the mourning period of the Omer, and because of the high spiritual energy of the day, many people choose to get married on Lag Ba’Omer.
Mount Meron: In Israel, tens of thousands of people travel to Mount Meron to celebrate the Yahrtzeit, the anniversary of the death, of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Per his deathbed request, his death is celebrated, rather than mourned.