Exploring the “mystery” of the Lag b’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer and the 18th day of the Iyar, and why so few people know what to celebrate.
By Louis Finkelman
At Meiron, near Safed in the Galilee, on the 18th day of Iyar, tens of thousands come to the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, celebrating with singing, dancing and lighting bonfires. Many 3-year-old boys get their first haircuts there. Smaller celebrations involve bonfires at open fields across Israel and children playing outdoors. Jewish schools across the world schedule field day activities that day, and many Jewish couples are married.
The 18th day of Iyar coincides every year with the 33rd day of the Omer; this year on Thursday, May 23. Using the Hebrew alphabet as a numeric code, the number 33 reads as Lamed-Gimmel, pronounced “lag,” hence the name, Lag b’Omer.
What do we celebrate on Lag b’Omer? That constitutes a mystery.
Around Passover in Israel, the barley just begins to ripen. On the second day of Passover, as the rabbis understand the biblical commandment, our ancestors brought an offering from the new barley crop (Leviticus 23:15-16). Starting from that day, we count seven weeks, until Shavuot on the 50th day, about when the wheat harvest begins. Counting the days from harvest to harvest also means counting the days from the Passover Exodus to the revelation on Sinai on Shavuot. So, the counting goes from one joyous occasion to the next.
So far, no mystery.
According to Talmudic legend, the period of counting developed a mournful aspect in the days of Rabbi Akiva, who had 12,000 pairs of students in an area that stretched from Gevat (in the north) to Antipatris (in central Israel), and they all died in one period of time because they did not treat each other with respect (Talmud Yevamot 62b). Some texts specify the “period of time” as between Passover and Shavuot, explaining the custom not to celebrate weddings then.
Centuries later, some communities allowed weddings on Lag b’Omer. Why? Maybe the deaths ended on that day.
According to a Talmudic source, when his first students died, Rabbi Akiva then taught five more students who became the teachers of all Israel. Maybe Lag b’Omer marks when he took on his new students.
In 16th-century Safed, some mystics recorded that their teacher, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, known as the Ari, castigated a fellow rabbi for reciting a mournful prayer on the day of rejoicing for Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (one of Rabbi Akiva’s second group of students, honored as the key source of Jewish mystical teaching). Perhaps the day of rejoicing for Rabbi Shimon means the anniversary of the day of his death, his yahrzeit, and perhaps that occurred on Lag b’Omer.
However, as the scholarly rabbi of Pressberg, Rabbi Moshe Schreiber (1762-1839) notes, earlier sources do not record on what day Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai died. Furthermore, he notes, we do not have a tradition of celebrating on the anniversary of a death. People traditionally observed the yahrzeit of close relatives by fasting.
Rabbi Schreiber observes he does not know what the celebration of Lag b’Omer is about (Responsa Hatam Sofer Yoreh Deah 232). A modern historian, Professor (and Rabbi) S. Z. Leiman, finished his own lecture on the “Strange History of Lag b’Omer” by repeating Rabbi Schreiber’s observation that we do not know. Hence, the mystery.