The period of mourning* (for the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died of plague) that is associated with Sefirat Ha’Omer, is not observed on the 33rd day of the Omer, a day known as Lag Ba’Omer. In Hebrew, every letter has a numerical value. “Lamed” has the value of 30 and “Gimmel” has the value of 3, thus Lag (spelled “Lamed Gimmel“) Ba’Omer, literally means 33 (days) in the Omer.

Because the mourning period is now over or suspended for the day, Lag Ba’Omer is a popular date for weddings (which are not held during most of Sefirat Ha’Omer) and haircuts. Some have the custom not to cut a boy’s hair until he is three years old, the age at which the child first begins to learn Torah. Since haircuts are delayed until after the period of mourning, and because there is Kabbalistic significance to hair, many put off the child’s first hair-cutting ceremony, called an Upsherin, until Lag Ba’Omer.

Lag Ba’Omer is also the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the famed Talmudic Kabbalist whose teachings are revealed in the Zohar. In Israel, on most years (although not this year, due to the threat of missiles from Lebanon,) tens of thousands of people travel to Mount Meron (near Safed) to observe his yahrtzeit near the cave in which he was buried. As per his deathbed request, his death is celebrated rather than mourned.

It is also common for families and friends to gather together for a bonfire and/or picnic on Lag Ba’Omer, often on Mount Meron. There are several reasons given for this custom. One is that the word “Zohar” translates to “shining light,” and bonfires bring light to the world.

*Some people observe 33 days of mourning starting from the beginning of the month of Iyar until three days prior to Shavuot. In such cases, however, Lag Ba’Omer is excluded from the mourning customs.