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And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering (Omer) – the day after the Sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain … (Leviticus 23: 15-16)
Many of our Jewish holidays are based on the agricultural calendar of our ancestors, including the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover (Pesach), Shavuot and Sukkot. There is an interesting connection between Pesach and Shavuot when we count the Omer (a harvesting unit of measure), starting the second night of Pesach until Shavuot, essentially marking the time from the barley to the wheat harvest. As in all agrarian societies, if the weather pattern deviates, it can be disastrous for the community. This is a precarious time, when everyone prays for positive results. Since our ancestors saw this as a somber time, there are many prohibitions during this 49-day period, including no weddings, parties or haircuts.
The one exception during this solemn period is Lag BaOmer-the 33rd day of counting the Omer. “Lag” is from the Hebrew letters lamed and gimel. Lamed has a numerical equivalent to 30, and gimel has the numerical equivalent of 3-thus the 33rd day. There are different reasons given to explain why this date is special. One rationale is that the plague that brought about the death of thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped on Lag BaOmer. The plague was supposedly due to their lack of respect for one another. There is also the claim that Lag BaOmer is the yahrzeit of one of Rabbi Akiva’s most famous students-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who is said to have authored the mystical writings of the Zohar-the text of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). According to legend, Rabbi bar Yochai was so saintly that during his entire lifetime, no rainbows appeared. The rainbow is a sign of the covenant between God and creation, and since “rainbow” and “bow” both are translated as keshet in Hebrew, the bow and arrow are symbols used to recall Rabbi bar Yochai. In a commentary on Genesis, the great Torah scholar Rashi (1040-1105), explained that there were generations so righteous that they did not require a sign of the covenant. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s generation was among them.Thus, the holiday is seen almost as a tribute to scholars. It has become a day of celebration and joy amidst the mournful seven weeks surrounding it.
Among those who observe the somber days during the Omer, Lag BaOmer is a day of wedding celebrations. During the time of the counting of the Omer there are bans on parties, music and dancing, similar to the prohibitions for a person in mourning for a loved one. For those who wish to marry in the spring, this is the only day on which one can celebrate. Many Jews also do not cut their hair during this time period. Boys, at the age of 3, often have their first haircut on Lag BaOmer, with much festivity surrounding the event.
Lag BaOmer celebrations are generally outdoor adventures, including bonfires, fun and frolic with teaching. Especially in Israel, people young and old will be outside sharing a picnic and enjoying the beautiful day; school children celebrate with a “field day.” The bonfires lit in celebration are supposed to symbolize the light of Torah.
How can we honor and rejoice on Lag BaOmer? Take time to study a new Jewish text, learn a new ritual you can bring into the rhythm of your days, find a new idea that brings meaning to your life. Have a picnic with family and friends, and take time to appreciate all that surrounds you in the world. Celebrate all that Judaism brings to enrich your life.