Two important Jewish holidays fall during the month of May: Lag b’Omer and Shavuot. However, the first is often overlooked by less observant Jews – and it is little understood by many. Maybe because many have found it hard to figure out what it’s really about.
I like the first holiday, Lag b’Omer, probably because it has a Kabbalistic bent and her in California my renewal group celebrates it with a bonfire on the beach and lots of drumming and singing and dancing. Most commonly, we are told that Lag b’Omer, which is celebrated this year on May 23, joyously commemorates great sage and mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s yahrzeit (anniversary of his passing). Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who lived in the 2nd century of the Common Era, was the first to publicly teach the mystical dimension of the Torah known as the “Kabbalah,” and is proportedly theauthor of the basic work of Kabbalah, the Zohar.
Why would we celebrate his death with festivities? On the day of his passing, after revealing many deep secrets of the Torah to his students, Rabbi Shimon instructed his disciples to mark the date as “the day of my joy.” Also, the Chassidic masters explain that the final day of a righteous person’s earthly life marks the point at which “all his deeds, teachings and work” achieve their culminating perfection and the zenith of their impact upon our lives. So, each Lag b’Omer we celebrate Rabbi Shimon’s life, teachings and the influence they have had on so many people.
Many of those who live in Israel may visit Rabbi Shimon’s resting place in Miron on this, the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer. According to the Torah (Vayikra, Parshat Emor, 23:15-16), we are obligated to count the days from the second night of Pesach to the day before Shavuot, seven full weeks. These 49 days represent the 49 days of preparation from the exodus from Egypt the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai on the seventh day of Sivan. The Counting of the Omer is a lovely yearly tradition that takes you from Passover to Shavuot in a Kabbalistic, spiritual and deeply personal manner.
I like what Rachel Barenblatt, “The Velveteen Rabbi” (check out her blog at www.velveteenrabbi.com) has to say about it: “Literally, the name means “the 33rd day of the Omer.” — remember, “counting the Omer” means counting the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot. Once upon a time, we counted the days between spring planting and spring harvest. More recently, we think in terms of counting the days between liberation and revelation, because we understand freedom not only as freedom-from but also freedom-toward.”
Other people celebrate the holiday with outings, bonfires and bows and arrows. Why a bonfire? The bonfire signifies the great light that came into the world with Rabbi Shimon. Additionally, the Zohar says that on the day Rabbi Shimon died, a great light of endless joy filled the day because of the secret wisdom he revealed to his students. That secret wisdom was recorded in the Zohar. The sun did not set until Rabbi Shimon had revealed all he was allowed to reveal, and as soon as he was finished, the sun set and he died. Supposedly a fire surrounded the house preventing any but Rabbi Shimon’s closest students from approaching; this serves as another basis for the custom of lighting bonfires on Lag b’Omer.
As for the bows and arrows, some say that relates back to a plague that occurred during the Counting of the Omer. Supposedly, Lag b’Omer also commemorates the end of a plague that raged amongst the disciples of the great sage Rabbi Akiva “because they did not act respectfully towards each other” during the weeks between Passover and Shavuot. This time period, therefore, is observed as a period of mourning, with various joyous activities proscribed by law and custom. However, on Lag b’Omer, the dying ceased. That might be why children observe Lag b’Omer by playing with bows and arrows, a way of remembering the students who fought amongst themselves. (Rabbi Shimon was one of Rabbi Akiva’s students who survived the plague.)
Barenblatt tells a different story: “Some say that what [Lag b’Omer is] really about is, Rabbi Akiva supported the Bar Kokhba revolt against Roman occupation. Many of his students followed him in supporting that revolt, and were killed. The so-called “plague” which ended on Lag b’Omer is a euphemism for the ill-fated rebellion. (In that case, kids play with bows and arrows as a symbolic re-enactment of the fight against Roman oppression.)”
Lastly, some people say that the manna which fell from heaven during the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert began to fall on the 18th of Iyar, which is the 33rd day of the Omer, so maybe Lag b’Omer celebrates that.
This brings us to Shavuot, which falls on May 29 this year, the second of the three major festivals (Passover being the first and Sukkot the third). This holiday occurs exactly 50 days after the second day of Passover and marks the anniversary of the day when the Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai.
The word “Shavuot” means “weeks.” It marks the completion of the seven-week counting period – the Counting of the Omer – between Passover and Shavuot. During these seven weeks the Jewish people cleansed themselves of the scars of Egyptian slavery and became a holy nation ready to enter into an eternal covenant with God with the giving of the Torah. Every year on the holiday of Shavuot, Jews reenact this historic moment. God re-gives the Torah, and Jews lovingly reaccept it and reenter into their covenant with God.
I like thinking of Moses also receiving the oral mystical teachings of the Kabbalah on that day. All the wisdom inherent in Judaism was revealed on that mountain, and we are told that all the souls of all the Jews then and now were present at that time. What an awesome vision.