Lag Ba’omer is a day of vivid memories for me. It was the only day that my primary school in London would go on an outing, full of packed lunches and adventures, to celebrate and learn about the Bar Kochba uprising. We would shoot toy bows and arrows and generally have a good time.
As I grew older I learned about other themes of the day. The death of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, who were the greatest Talmudic scholars of their generation, but were stuck down by a plague as they were disrespectful of each other. Lag Ba’omer was the day that the plague stopped.
There are many different explanations of this event in rabbinical teaching and many different lectures have highlighted how the small passage in Sefer Yevamot is packed with multiple meanings.
Historians point to the fact that the students were not killed by a divine plague, but in the Bar Kochba uprising. All of Rabbi Akiva’s students died and he fled to the south where he rebuilt the study of the oral traditions through five students.
In my yeshiva days there was always a stress on the concept of “derech eretz kedma la’tora,” roughly translated as “manners comes before religious observance.” It was the ideology of the German Orthodox Jews in the late 1800s. The historical narrative was not as important as the lesson embedded in the text; your learning is for naught if you cannot be a mensch.
If you are in Israel, you will know that Lag Ba’omer is a day that turns Orthodox Jews into pyromaniacs with bonfires marking the death of Shimon Bar Yochai with many making a pilgrimage up north to Meron where he is buried.
Lag Ba’omer this year can be seen in the events all around us. In Israel, the battles between the ultra-Orthodox parties and Finance Minister Yair Lapid can be seen as an attempt to get Torah students to behave with manners or as an attack on Torah students. The reading of the events depends on your perspective.
In the United States, we see students caring about one another and their communities in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. As someone who lived in-between Cambridge and Watertown last year it is amazing to see how the community has come together to support one another during this awful time. The U.S. equivalent of Rabbi Akiva’s students, the brightest of the bright, cared about each other and those around them during their tragic time. They did not see themselves as above the moral code of society, but rather steeped in it.
The messages and themes of Lag Ba’omer are rich and wonderful. It’s sad that it is one of the lesser-known Jewish holidays. There are so many different themes throughout the day, the activities are so much more fun than the more well known festivals. It’s a shame that it is unknown to so many.
Joel Braunold is a Bnei Akiva alumnus and a former staff member of OneVoice Europe who is currently living in Brooklyn.