Occurring during the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot, which is usually in May or June according to the Gregorian calendar, the minor holiday of Lag BaOmer is observed. This period of time when the festive holiday is celebrated is known as the Omer. In ancient Hebrew, an omer is a measure of grain, weighing about 3.6 liters. Using any new barley from a crop is forbidden by Biblical law until an omer has been brought to the Temple in Jerusalem as an offering. In the Book of Leviticus 23:15-16, we are taught “And from the day on which you bring the offering…you shall count off several weeks. They must be complete.” The practice of Sefirat Ha’omer, translated to mean the 49 days of the “Counting of the Omer” begins on the second day of Passover and continues until the end of Shavuot. In a simpler way, Lag BaOmer is an easier way to say “the 33rd day of the Omer.”
History of Lag BaOmer
The holiday isnt found as being mentioned in the Torah, however it is only hinted at in the Talmud. Lag BaOmer has no formal ritual that is prescribed to the holiday. Many attractive and meaningful Lag BaOmer rituals have been created and grown over time.
In addition to being a shorter way of saying the 33rd day of Omer, it is also useful in tracking the agricultural cycle of the land. As Omer marks the start of Passover and commemorates the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt until Shavuot is reached, which celebrates the moment at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given.
While not only biblical, the trek from Egypt to Sinai was indeed a spiritual one as well. Preparing themselves to not just be given the Torah, but to also accept it was a journey through not only the desert, but also through the Israelies’ wilderness of their souls.
The period of Omer is historically one of semi-mourning. During this time, weddings and other festivities are declined, in order to pay respects to the memory of the thousands of deaths to the students of Rabbi Akiva, a Talmudic scholer who were afflicted by the plague. The plague ceased on Lag BaOmer, becoming a day on which the rituals of mouring as declined and replaced with great joy.
Customs and Rituals of Lag BaOmer
“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)
The agricultural calendar of our ancestors can be the inspiration for many of the holidays the Jewish people celebrate. These include the three pilgirmage festivals during Pesach or Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Pesach and Shavuot have an interesting connection when the Omer is counted, beginning on the second night of Passover and lasting until Shavuot, which signifies the time from the barley to the harvest of the wheat. If the pattern of weather deviates at all, like many other agrarian societies, the results can be disasterous for the community as a while. During this uncertain time, everyone prays for positive results. Seen as a dreary time by our ancestors, many things that were of normal practive would be forbidden during this period of 49 days including weddings, parties, and even haircuts.
There would be an exception to this rule during this period would be the Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day that the Omer is counted. “Lag” comes from the Hebrew letters lamed and gimel. With numerical values of 30 and 3 respectively, these would correspond to the 33rd day. Other reason have been uncovered to explain the date’s special explanation. One well known theory is that the plague stopped on the 33rd day, after killing thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students. This horrible plague was thought to be caused by their lack of respect for each other. Another claim explains that the Lag BaOmer is the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who was one of Rabbi Akiva’s most famous students and is rumored to have gone on to write the mystical teaching of the Zohar which is text of the Jewish mysticism, also known as Kabbalah.
The legend states that no rainbows appeared during the entire lifetime of Rabbi bar Yochai because he was considered to be extrememly saintly. The covenant between God and creation is symbolized by a rainbow. Both rainbow and bow translate in Hebrew to keshet, this has come to make the bow and arrow a symbol that are used to remember Rabbi bar Yochai.
The great scholar of the Torah, Rashi (1040-1105) commented that there had been generations that were considered to be so righteous that they would not need a sign of the covenant between God and creation. One such generation was that of Rabbi bar Yochai. Because of this, Lag BaOmer can be seen as a sort of tribute to scholars and has, despite the seven weeks of mourning that occur, been known as a day of joy and celebration.
During the Omer, those whose observe these somber days, will celebrate Lag BaOmer as a day full of wedding celebrations. Parties, music, and dancing are forbidden during the Omer, which can be similar to prohibition someone may have during a mourning period for a loved one. Couples looking to get married in the spring only have this one day that they can use to celebrate. Many Jewish people will also not receive a haircut during the Omer and at the age of 3, boys will get their first haircut on Lag BaOmer, which is marked wth festivities surrounding the momentous event.
Celebrations for Lag BaOmer are outdoor celebrations with adventures, bonfires, fun and frollicing with teaching as well. In Israel especially, the young and old be outside enjoying the beautiful day with picnics and school children will have field days. A bonfire that is lit during the celebration is meant to symbolize the light of the Torah.
How can you both honor and rejoice during the holiday of Lag BaOmer? You can learn a new ritual to bring rhythm to your otherwise normal day, study a Jewish text that you haven’t before, find some new ideas to bring meaning to your life. Get outside and enjoy the beautiful day with a picnic amongst family and friends. Most importantly, take the time to appreciate everything in the world that surrounds you. Celebrate the things that Judaism bring to you to enrich your life.