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The Jewish Celebration of Lag B’Omer
Lag B'Omer is one of those obscure Jewish holidays that is celebrated by a devout Jews. It is widely observed in Israel as a family-oriented holiday marked by grilled meats, carob cakes, and bows and arrows.
Introduction to Lag B’Omer?
On the 33rd day of the Omer, the 49-day period between Passover and Shavuot, a minor holiday known as Lag B’omer takes place. The main components of Lag B’omer are taking a break from the semi-mourning of the Omer, having Jewish weddings (it is the one day during the Omer when Jewish law permits them), lighting bonfires, and getting haircuts.
What is Lag B’Omer?
The Omer has both agricultural and spiritual significance: it marks both the spring cycle of planting and harvest, and the Israelites’ journey out of slavery in Egypt (Passover) and toward receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai (Shavuot). Weddings and other celebrations are prohibited during the Omer, and observant Jews refrain from getting their hair cut as a sign of mourning.
The Omer, which literally translates to “a sheaf,” refers to the grain that was offered to God in the Jewish Temple and is a period of mourning. It started on the second day of Passover and on Shavuot, when the Jews embraced the Torah at Mount Sinai, it comes to an end.
One of the reasons for the holiday is that the manna that kept the Jews alive during their 40-year wandering in the desert is said to have started falling on the 18th of the Hebrew month of Iyar, which also happens to be the 33rd day of the Omer. According to anthropologists, many cultures have similar early-spring periods of restraint to represent their worries about the development of their crops.
The Talmud, however, provides the most frequently cited justification for Jewish tradition, telling us that thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students perished during this season due to a plague brought on by their disrespect for one another. The act of mourning is presumably in remembrance of those students and the harsh punishment they received. On Lag B’omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, a mediaeval legend states that the plague ended.
The Omer period is also mystically interpreted by Kabbalists as a time of spiritual purification and preparation for receiving the Torah on Shavuot. They claim that the days and weeks of counting represent different arrangements of the sefirot, the divine emanations, whose contemplation ultimately results in mental and spiritual purity. The gloominess of this time reflects the gravity of its spiritual endeavours.
Overview of Lag B’Omer?
The acronym “Lag” is made up of the Hebrew letters lamed and gimel, which add up to 33. As a result, Lag B’omer changed from being a sad day to a happy one for a full day. A grain measurement used in old Hebrew is called an omer, or “sheaf”. According to biblical law, no new barley harvest could be used before an omer was brought as an offering to the Jerusalem Temple. Leviticus (23:15–16) also gave the following instructions:
“And from the day on which you bring the offering…you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete.” This law gave rise to the 49-day “Counting of the Omer” custom known as S’firat HaOmer, which starts on the second day of Passover and ends with the celebration of Shavuot on the 50th day.
History of Lag B’Omer
But two Talmudic stories that take place in the Roman era serve as the main inspiration for Lag B’Omer.
When considered in its historical setting, the Talmudic explanation makes the most sense.
Simeon bar Koseva, also known as Bar Kochba, led a fierce but ultimately fruitless uprising against Roman rule in Judea in 132 CE, and the great sage Rabbi Akiva became a fervent supporter of Bar Kochba.
In addition to hoping for a political victory over Rome, Akiva also thought Bar Kochba was the long-awaited Messiah. Many of his students joined him in supporting the uprising, and when it failed, they were killed alongside thousands of Judeans.
When the Talmudic rabbis mentioned a plague among Akiva’s students, they may have been alluding to those deaths since they were still under Roman rule and wary of discussing previous uprisings in public. Lag Ba’omer may have also symbolised a break in the fighting or a brief victory.
Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, one of Rabbi Akiva’s few disciples to have survived the Bar Kochba uprising, is the focus of a completely different explanation for the holiday. He supposedly passed away on Lag B’omer.
Lastly, some authorities on the topic also believe that the manna that kept the Israelites alive in the desert first appeared on the 18th of Iyar, which is the reason for the joy of Lag B’omer.
Traditional Lag B’Omer Customs
People gather in Israel on Lag B’omer to light bonfires and sing kabbalistic hymns at the location of “Rabbi Simeon’s” tomb in the Galilee village of Meron, close to Safed.
Some Jews also follow the tradition of taking their 3-year-old sons to Meron for their first haircut. The tradition of delaying a child’s hair cut until his third birthday, when it is done in a ceremony known as an upsheren, is likely an extension of the law that prohibits harvesting a tree’s fruit during the first three years after planting.
Modern Lag B’Omer Celebrations
Today in order to observe the celebration children from schools go on picnics, play outside with bows and arrows (possibly as a reminder of the battles in which Akiva’s students participated), and plant trees in Israel.
It is also customary to light bonfires to represent the light Simeon bar Yohai brought into the world.
It is also common for couples get married during this joyous time each year. On Lag B’Omer, many Israeli couples decide to wed, and many people decide to get their hair cut or beard trimmed.
Conclusion: Lag B’Omer
The Jewish people are required to count the days from the second night of Passover to the day before Shavu’ot, a total of exactly seven full weeks or 49 days, in accordance with the Torah (Lev. 23:15). The term “Omer” refers to this time frame and the biblical term “omer,” which denoted a unit of measurement.
In the days of the Temple, an omer of barley was harvested and brought as an offering to the Temple on the second day of Passover. In remembrance of a plague that killed dozens of Jewish scholars during Rabbi Akiba’s lifetime, the Omer period is also a period of limited mourning. Jewish tradition forbids events like weddings, parties, live music performances, dancing, and haircuts.
How to Incorporate Lag B’Omer into an Interfaith Life
As someone living an interfaith life, incorporating the Lag B’Omer celebrations is quite easy. You can simply be mindful of the reason for the celebration and understand that it is a temporary break form the mournfulness of the Omer period more broadly.
If you wanted to participate in a active way, you could opt to abstain from cutting your hair or getting married during the Omer period and only do so on Lag B’Omer. It is also a lovely opportunity to go out on a picnic with your family if you are able to, perhaps as the days are longer in summer, you could do so for an after work or school dinner with your family and friends as a way of observing the holiday as a group.
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