Lag Ba'Omer

33rd of the Omer

Table of Contents

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.

 Lag Ba’Omer

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:


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.


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.

Rabbi Akiva – Hero and Martyr

One of Israel’s greatest sages, Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, was a scholar, a teacher, a shepherd and a revolutionary.
A revolutionary? In the year 70 of the Common Era, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and the Jews were exiled from Jerusalem. The emperor promised to rebuild the city, but his plan was to rebuild it and rename it Aeila Capitalina, dedicating it to the Roman god, Jupiter. This outrageous act, along with the harsh laws forbidding the study of Torah and the observance of many of the mitzvot, led to the Bar Kochba revolt over 60 years after the destruction of the Temple, in the year 132 CE.

While Shimon Bar Kochba was the military commander of the revolt, the spiritual leader was Rabbi Akiva. He had such faith in Bar Kochba that he believed him to be the Messiah, which, unfortunately, he was not. It was during the Bar Kochba revolt that the 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students died in a plague. The rabbis understood this plague to be a result of the students lack of respect for each other, and, despite their high level of intellectual development, their lack of proper moral comportment was fatal. Devastated by the death of his pupils, and the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt, Rabbi Akiva nevertheless persevered and continued teaching his surviving students.
Living in such turbulent times, however, Rabbi Akiva’s life was not to end peacefully. Ignoring the Roman prohibitions against the Jewish people and their practices, he was declared a criminal for teaching Torah wherever he could, and was eventually captured by the Romans. Tortured, he called out joyfully: “All my life I’ve been waiting to fulfill the concept ‘You shall love Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources…'[the first paragraph of the Shema] and now I finally have the chance.” Rabbi Akiva died a martyr’s death.

Rabbi Akiva–The Simple Shepherd

Where did Rabbi Akiva get the strength to persevere while watching all but 5 of his students die, his country in revolution, and while being tortured himself?
Akiva ben Yosef ben Avraham was not always a great sage. In fact, he was the son of a convert who was once a thoroughly ignorant and illiterate shepherd. So poor and downtrodden a figure was Akiva ben Yosef that his father-in-law, one of the wealthiest men in Israel, disinherited his daughter, Rachel, for marrying him

At the age of forty, Akiva’s life changed suddenly. One day, while out tending his flocks, he noticed a rock with a strange hole going straight through it. This hole was created by constantly dripping water. Akiva ben Yosef decided then and there to go and learn Torah, for if dripping water could bore a hole into solid rock, then even he, a forty year old man could learn Torah through constant effort. He had to start from scratch, for Akiva ben Yosef did not even know the aleph-bet!

Fully supported by Rachel, his wife, he went to study Torah for 12 years. When he returned he overheard his wife tell a friend that she would gladly let him learn for another 12 years. And he did. When he finally returned, he had become the great sage and acquired his 24,000 students.

Like Moses, Rabbi Akiva started as a shepherd. He became one of the greatest sages of the Jewish people with enough wisdom to unravel the intricacies of the law, guide the populace, and inspire an army.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai

When the plague of Rabbi Akiva’s students ended, only five students survived. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was among them.

Like his teacher Akiva, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was a great scholar and political leader. He believed that all Jews should be immersed exclusively in Torah study, and only late in life did he come to understand that not every Jew could make such a total commitment. His own intense study of Torah brought out the deeper, esoteric meanings of the Torah. With the approval of his teachers, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai set out to share the hidden secrets of the Torah, what is today called Kabbalah, with his fellow Jews

With the arrest of Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son, Rabbi Elazar, were forced to go into hiding from Caeser’s army. For 13 years they dwelled in a cave on Mount Meron in the Galilee, not far from the city of Safed, where, according to tradition, they sustained themselves with the fruit of a carob tree. When the throne changed hands, the pair of scholars were able to come out of hiding and once again share their knowledge with their people.

The teachings of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai were set down in a book called the Zohar, which means “splendor.” According to tradition, on the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s last insight of Kabbalah was given over and he died. Just before he passed away, he requested that his death not be marked by sadness, for he felt that death should be a time of rejoicing as the soul takes its proper place with G-d. The great sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who revealed the secrets of the Kabbalah, was buried in his cave on Meron. For this reason, tens of thousands of people gather on Mount Meron every year on Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer, to celebrate the anniversary of his death.