Once upon a time this day marked the end of a terrible plague. Then revisionism got involved.
Lag Ba'omerApril-May Illustration: Masha Manapov
What is Lag Ba'omer?
Lag Ba'omer is a minor Jewish holiday whose origins trace back to the Middle Ages. Like Tu Bishvat (the New Year for Trees), Lag Ba’omer takes its name from the Hebrew date – it falls on the 33rd (Lamed-Gimel in the Hebrew counting system) of the Counting of the Omer (Sefirat Ha'omer), the 49-day countdown from Passover to Shavuot.
Lag Ba’omer has a rather convoluted history. The Talmud (Yevamot 62b) states that Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 students and that during the period between Passover and Shavuot, they were afflicted by a mysterious plague. According to later commentators, the plague ended on Lag Ba'omer, and thus the day was to be marked with a celebration.
It is believed that the Talmudic verse concerning the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students is a veiled reference to their death during the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans (132–136 CE). The rebellion was supported by Rabbi Akiva, but ended in disaster and civil war, which may account for the Talmud’s glossing over the details.
In the 16th century, Rabbi Isaac Luria (“Ha'ari”) decided that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, associated with the Zohar (a group of books that elaborate on the mystical elements of the Torah), died on Lag Ba'omer. Thus, Lag Ba'omer is specially marked at Mount Meron, where bar Yochai is believed to be buried.
When is Lag Ba’omer?
Lag Ba'omer is marked on the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar. As with all Jewish holidays, it begins and ends at sundown.
Lag Ba'omer 2015: May 6 – May 7
Lag Ba'omer 2016: May 25 – May 26
Lag Ba'omer 2017: May 13 – May 14
Lag Ba'omer 2018: May 2 – May 3
Lag Ba'omer 2019: May 22 – May 23
How do we observe Lag Ba'omer?
Because of the association of the first 33 days of the Omer with the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students, traditional Jews observe mourning rituals, which include a ban on shaving, getting haircuts or getting married during these days. However, on Lag Ba'omer, these stringencies are lifted.
Secular Jewish children celebrate Lag Ba’omer with bonfires to commemorate the bonfires that warned the Jews of the arrival of Roman troops during the Bar Kochba revolt. The association of the holiday with Bar Kochba has given rise to a tradition of Jewish kids running around with bows and arrows.
Many religious Jews celebrate the life of Shimon bar Yochai, in a great celebration that draws hundreds of thousands atop Mount Meron. The celebration includes giving three-year-old boys their first haircuts, lighting bonfires, singing and dancing.
Israeli universities have taken over an old tradition of Lag Ba'omer being “Scholars' Day,” and host student day celebrations on campuses around the country.
What do we eat on Lag Ba’omer?
Lag Ba’omer is one of the few Jewish holidays without its own cuisine, but judging from the delight of the many Israeli children who stay out all night roasting marshmallows, hotdogs and potatoes in their bonfires, it seems that nothing more is needed.
Lag Ba'omer Reading
In a night-long vigil, thousands of Jews lit large bonfires across the country.
The holiday commemorates the death of renowned Jewish scholar Shimon Bar Yochai in the second century CE.
This Day in Jewish History 1960: Archaeologist Announces Finding 2,000-year Old Letters by Bar Kochba in Desert Cave
The letters presented by Yigael Yadin were signed by Bar Kochba, the man revered by modern Israelis — but who led the Jewish nation to disaster.
Hasids light bonfires at tomb of revered Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
On Lag Ba'Omer, Israeli children celebrate the Jewish rebels' victory over the Romans 2,000 years ago. Yet as victories go, Simon Bar Kochba's was a Pyrrhic one.
Maybe this holiday is meant to be a reminder that unwillingness to compromise on what we feel is rightfully ours can be catastrophic.
Latin inscription recently unearthed in Jerusalem completes a century-old puzzle that may put to rest a historical dispute that began in Roman times.
According to tradition, the Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai died on Lag Ba’omer and was buried on Mount Meron.
What can coins minted by the rebels and Jerusalem’s Roman rulers tell us about the chain of events that eventually led to today’s Lag Ba’omer bonfires?