Today is Lag b'Omer, a relatively obscure Jewish holiday, yet one which is deeply meaningful for many, particularly those with a Kabbalistic or more mystical orientation. Lag b'Omer, which literally translates to the thirty-third day of the Omer (Hebrew letters each have numerical equivalents--thus, lamed is equal to thirty and gimmel is equal to three) is a day marked with barbecues, bonfires, weddings, music and other festivities. Marking Lag b'Omer in this fashion is significant insofar it is a break in the mourning customs that many communities observe during the seven weeks of the Omer.
Beginning on the second night of Pesach and concluding on the eve before Shavuot, Jews count the Omer each evening. The Omer period lasts for seven complete weeks, from the time of our Exodus out of Egypt (Yetziat Mitzrayim) to our celebration of the giving of the Torah (Matan Torah) on Mt. Sinai which Shavuot commemorates.
The Omer was a Biblical measure of barley that was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem beginning on the second day of Pesach. The Omer period is one of semi-mourning, as it was during this time that 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students died as a result of a plague which was caused by their failure to show proper honor and respect to each other. Instead, they begrudged each other, resulting in sinat chinam, baseless hatred. Owing to this, many Jews refrain from listening to music, getting hair cuts and attending celebratory functions, including weddings. According to tradition, the plague ceased on Lag b’Omer, one of the reasons for the festivities on this date. On Lag b’Omer, all mourning restrictions are lifted and weddings and other festive occasions are permitted.
A second reason for the celebrations on Lag b’Omer is that it marks the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who, according to Jewish tradition, was one of the famed Rabbi Akiva's five primary students. Tradition also attributes the writing of the Zohar to him, which is one of the most important and pivotal Kabbalistic works. Scholars and historians generally dispute his claim to authorship, placing the composition of the Zohar instead in 13th century Spain and ascribing its authorship to Moses de Leon.
While it does seem strange to celebrate Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s passing in this manner, the celebrations are meant to reflect upon the immense amount of Torah he taught to his students and beyond. The massive bonfires that are erected throughout Israel and elsewhere are symbolic of the incredible amount of light he brought into the world during his lifetime. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is understood by Jewish tradition to have revealed the deepest, most esoteric secrets of Kabbalah on this date and thus Jews celebrate the giving of the Kabbalistic tradition, or hidden Torah, to us through him. Interestingly, the bonfires are also reminiscent of the fires lit during the Bar Kokbah revolt as a means of relaying messages or sending signals.
During the Medieval period, Lag b’Omer became a significant holiday for rabbinical students and was known as the scholar’s festival. It is customary to travel to Meron, the site of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, Rabbi Elazar’s graves. There, a large bonfire is lit and a great deal of celebration occurs.
There is much that the death of Rabbi Akiva's 24,000 students has to teach us today. I find it deeply meaningful that the two periods of greatest mourning during the Jewish calendrical cycle ask us to reflect upon sinat chinam--the baseless hatred and lack of kavod or honor that Rabbi Akiva's students displayed to one another.
Just as they failed to show one another proper respect, so, do we far too frequently resort to sectarianism and division instead of unity and greater unnderstanding. Let all of us, regardless of faith background or lack thereof, take time to reflect upon the ways in which we are acting as Rabbi Akiva's students did, and, conversely, the many ways in which we are seeking to bridge the divides that exist between all of us.
An earlier version of this article appeared here: http://www.bellaonline.com/articles/art63995.asp