Portion of the Week / The Fires of Lag Ba'omer

When we were exiled, we were distanced from our native land - literally and figuratively. We stopped working the land, and the days of the Counting of the Omer became a period of mourning.

Benjamin Lau
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Benjamin Lau

This week's Torah reading speaks of the holidays in the Jewish calendar. After referring to the Sabbath as the "queen of holidays," the Torah discusses, according to their order in the Jewish calendar, the seven months (between Nisan and Tishri) during which the holidays fall; they are all concentrated in the first half of the calendar, with none falling during winter. The first holiday is Passover and, the moment it ends, the harvest festivities begin. First, there is the barley harvest, barley being the first cereal crop to ripen. We then proceed to the wheat harvest festivities, which occur seven weeks later.

The days between the barley and wheat harvests are also the period of the Counting of the Omer. When we read the verses depicting the days when the Omer is counted, we can sense the excitement of the farmers who, during this time, devote all their energies to the work of harvesting, as they proceed from one crop to the next. This is the natural pulse of the life of a people dwelling in its native land and eating the fruits of its labors.

When we were exiled, we were distanced from our native land - literally and figuratively. We stopped working the land, and the days of the Counting of the Omer became a period of mourning. The first reference to mourning appears in the Talmud, which relates that Rabbi Akiva's students died in a plague between Passover and Shavuot. It is quite possible that the "plague" was actually the war waged by Shimon Bar Kokhba between 132 and 135 C.E., and that the students were warriors in this revolt against the Romans. The emperor Hadrian's decrees, issued in the wake of the war, emptied Judea of its Jews, whether by the sword or incarceration in a foreign prison. Thus, the festive days of the Counting of the Omer became a period of national mourning for the loss of the hope of liberty.

A millennium later, the Jews of Ashkenaz (Germany) living in the Rhine valley experienced the fury of the Crusades. The Jewish communities there were destroyed in the spring and summer, and thus the days of the Counting of the Omer were transformed into a period of commemoration for these communities whose members died as martyrs. In this way, the mourning for Rabbi Akiva's students became intertwined with the mourning for the Jews of Ashkenaz.

Shrouded in mystery

Only one day has survived as a festive occasion: Lag Ba'omer (the 33rd day of the Omer), the 18th of the Hebrew month of Iyar. Tomorrow night, the air of the entire country will be filled with the smoke of giant bonfires lit to mark this day, whose roots are shrouded in mystery. Early Jewish sources (Talmudic and medieval) make no mention of Lag Ba'omer's bonfires. According to Sephardic tradition, the plague ended on that day, and thus the period of mourning also terminates. According to Ashkenazic tradition, the plague was suspended for only one day; thus, weddings can be held on Lag Ba'omer, although the next day, the mourning resumes.

During Safed's golden era, it was told that, on Lag Ba'omer, Rabbi Isaac Luria, known popularly as the Ari, or the Lion, would go with his students to pray at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, or Rashbi, on Mount Meron. Lag Ba'omer is, according to one tradition, Rashbi's Yahrzeit (anniversary of his death), and, according to another, the day he transmitted his deepest secrets to his students; in any event, it was the kabbalistic tradition that established Lag Ba'omer as a day of celebration in Rashbi's memory.

According to one account, Rabbi Haim Ben Attar, the 18th-century author of "Or Hahaim," on ascending Mount Meron during the festivities, "was extremely happy and burned several of his costliest clothes in honor of the saintly Rashbi of blessed memory," as reported in Rabbi Samuel Heller's pamphlet "Kevod Melakhim," published in 5574 (1913/14). There are subsequent reports of mass attendance at Rashbi's tomb on Lag Ba'omer night and of a giant bonfire into which were thrown clothes donated by the celebrants. Rabbinical authorities and kabbalistic Jews debated extensively the custom of lighting a Lag Ba'omer bonfire on Mount Meron and tossing clothes into the flames. Former Sephardic chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef is a major opponent of the manner in which Lag Ba'omer is currently celebrated in Israel.

In the course of the 19th century, visitors to the Holy Land described Lag Ba'omer as a day when excursions were made throughout the country, with pilgrimages to the Galilee, Meron and its surroundings, and the lighting of bonfires in Rashbi's honor. Only at the start of the Zionist era does this tradition link up with another, which associates the bonfires with the torches lit to sanctify the new Hebrew month throughout the Land of Israel during Bar Kokhba's revolt. The link established between Lag Ba'omer and Bar Kokhba is particularly fascinating because Rashbi was a known opponent of the Roman regime (he was forced to flee and hide in a cave) and a disciple of Rabbi Akiva, who supported the revolt. It is thus understandable why Lag Ba'omer occasioned a cultural focus on Bar Kokhba, the revolt and Jewish heroism. The bonfires became a symbol of the Jewish warrior's way of life in the field and the kumsitz became a symbol of the Palmach, the elite strike force of the Haganah, the main pre-state underground Jewish militia.

This is how Lag Ba'omer became a part of the Israeli-Zionist psyche during the first years of Zionism and Israel. A clear distinction became evident between Jews and Israelis in the way the day was celebrated: The religious Jews lit torches in Rashbi's honor and sang songs about him, while young Israelis, sitting around an alternative bonfire, sang about a hero "whom the entire nation loved" and focused on the image of a powerful hero who galloped on a lion in his charges against the Romans. Religious Israeli Jewish society continues to sing songs about Rashbi on Lag Ba'omer. But what songs does the "Israeli tribe" sing around its bonfires? Does it continue to sing about Bar Kokhba's strength and daring? Is there any real desire today to praise power? If not, have we created a new narrative that we can relate as we sit around our bonfires?