This article was originally published on May 6, 2015.
Lag Ba'omer is a minor Jewish holiday that traces back not to antiquity, but to the Middle Ages. Marked on the 18th day of the Jewish month of Iyar, the modern festivities include making a bonfire and roasting potatoes, franks, marshmallows and other fire-friendly foods on the flames. Few may realize it, but what we're celebrating is the cessation of a vicious plague that carried off tens of thousands of yeshiva students more than 1,000 years ago – maybe.
Though the holiday is relatively new, this story starts in biblical times, when Jews were commanded to count the 49 harvest days from Passover to Shavuot. This was called Sefirat Ha'omer (“The counting of the Omer”). Lag Ba'omer is simply the 33rd day of this count, with “Lag” – lamed gimel – being the way Jews write the number 33.
Back then, the 33rd day of the Omer had no special significance.
However, since the 9th century, these 49 days became days of mourning over the deaths of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, who, according to the Talmud (Yevamot 62b), died between Passover and Shavuot of a plague. Thus, during the Omer, traditional Jews observed mourning rituals, which included a ban on shaving, getting haircuts or getting married. (When the Jewish communities in the Rhine Valley were decimated in 1096 and 1146 during the days of the Omer, these slaughters were added to the mourning observance.)
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Back to the plague: In 13th-century Spain, the Talmudist Menachem Meiri wrote in a commentary on the Tractate Yevamot that according to a Gaonic tradition, the plague ended on Lag Ba'omer. That, therefore, was reason to mark the day with a celebration.
We first hear of celebrations marking that 33rd day of the count in the 15th century, in the writings of the important German rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin, though it is not exactly clear in what way the day was marked.
In the 16th century, Rabbi Isaac Luria (“Ha'Ari”) decided that Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai, who according to (a false) tradition wrote the Kabbalistic book the Zohar, died on Lag Ba'omer, and on his deathbed he revealed to his disciples mystical traditions. From that time, Lag Ba'omer has been marked specially at Mount Meron, where bar Yochai is believed to be buried.
The Meronite celebration includes giving 3-year-old boys their first haircuts, lighting bonfires, singing and dancing.
Why the bonfire? It isn't about cooking; it's that fire symbolizes the light that is wisdom, spread by the great rabbi bar Yochai.
Children were and still are given bows and arrows to play with. This is likely due to influence of non-Jewish neighbors, but is explained by a midrash, which claims that, during the lifetime of Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai, no rainbows appeared. Thus, since the Hebrew word for rainbow and bow are one and the same – keshet – playing with bow and arrows is seen as a way of celebrating the life of the great sage.
This Meronite mode of celebrating Lag Ba'omer slowly spread from Safed to the rest of the Holy Land during the 17th century. In the 18th century it began to be practiced among Sephardi communities and later that century among Hasidic Jews in Eastern Europe. At some stage, Lag Ba'omer began to be celebrated as “Scholars’ Day,” with Jewish students getting the day off and going hiking and the like.
The Zionist reinterpretation
In the 19th century, Nachman Krochmal and other Jewish scholars began to hypothesize that the Talmudic verse concerning the death of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva was a veiled reference to their death in battle, as part of the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans (132–136 CE) and not a mysterious plague. An explanation that is not too dubious considering the fact that Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kochba were contemporaries and that the former supported the latter. This interpretation was adopted by the Zionist movement in the 20th century.
The old religious rituals were reinterpreted to have secular historic meanings: Lag Ba'omer was celebrated because on that day Bar Kochba achieved a victory over the Romans, bonfires were lit because that is how this victory was signaled throughout the land, bow and arrows were used because that was one of the weapons Bar Kochba’s forces used to fight the Romans, and so on.
Thus, in our times the holiday is celebrated in three distinct ways: Secular Jewish children hold bonfires supposedly celebrating Bar Kochba; religious Jews celebrate the life of Simeon bar Yochai, in a great celebration drawing hundreds of thousands atop Mount Meron, but also in lesser celebrations elsewhere in Israel and abroad; and thirdly, Israeli universities took the old tradition of Lag Ba'omer as “Scholars' Day,” creating student day celebrations on campuses.