Adults and children in Tel Aviv joyously celebrate amid Lag b’Omer bonfires.
Adults and children in Tel Aviv joyously celebrate amid Lag b’Omer bonfires. (iStock)

Unlike every other special occasion on the Jewish calendar, regarding Lag b’Omer, we have precious little information about what it is we are celebrating.

The occasion of Lag b’Omer, which is customarily celebrated as a quasi-holiday, is shrouded in mystery. Unlike every other special occasion on the Jewish calendar, regarding Lag b’Omer, we have precious little information about what it is we are celebrating.

The Gemara in Maseches Yevamos (62b) tells that Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 students who all died from a dreadful disease during a single period — the weeks after Pesach. They perished, the Gemara says, because they did not treat each other respectfully. The Gemara adds that their death left the world bereft of Torah scholarship, until Rabbi Akiva approached five outstanding scholars and taught them, thereby ensuring the perpetuation of our sacred scholarly tradition. 

We commemorate the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students by observing certain mourning practices during the weeks after Pesach, the period when they perished. The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 493:2) writes that the mourning practices end on Lag b’Omer, because according to tradition, the plague ended on this day. The Rama (16th-century Rabbi Moses Isserles of Krakow, Poland) adds that Lag b’Omer is observed as a minor holiday.

The Peri Chadash (by Rav Chizkiya Da Silva, Italy-Jerusalem, 1659-1698) asks why the end of the plague is cause for celebration. The plague ended only once there were no students left to die. Why is this something to celebrate? 

The Peri Chadash therefore shifts the focus from the plague to its aftermath — Rabbi Akiva’s rebuilding Torah scholarship after this calamity. According to the Peri Chadash, on Lag b’Omer we celebrate the fact that Rabbi Akiva assured the future of Torah after losing 24,000 students.

Alternative Views

Another explanation is that Lag b’Omer marks the yahrtzeit of Rashbi (second-century Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai). This is based on an account written by Rav Chaim Vital (1543-1620) describing a pilgrimage made by his mentor, the Arizal  (Rav Yitzchak Luria, 1534-1572), to Rashbi’s gravesite on Mount Meiron in the Upper Galilee on Lag b’Omer. Rav Chaim Vital writes that the Arizal referred to Lag b’Omer on that occasion as תמש םוי — “the day he died.” Many understood this to mean that Lag b’Omer is Rashbi’s yahrtzeit. 

Others, however, disagree. In an early manuscript of Rav Chaim Vital’s account, this text reads, י”בשר ‘מש םויב. And in a different manuscript, the word ‘מש appears as ‘חמש. It seems clear that the intended phrase is י”בשר תחמש — “the joy of Rashbi,” and the letter ת was omitted to save space.

Accordingly, the Chida (Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai, 1724-1806) writes (in Mar’is Ayin, likutim, 7:8) that the theory that Lag b’Omer marks the yahrtzeit of Rashbi stems from a mistaken reading of a manuscript. The Chida explains that י”בשר תחמש refers to the fact that on Lag b’Omer, Rashbi and his four peers began learning with Rabbi Akiva, thus setting into motion the renewal of Torah scholarship. Similar to the Peri Chadash’s understanding, the Chida writes that this was Rashbi’s joyous day because it was then that he began studying under Rabbi Akiva.

According to this understanding, there is only one reason for the Lag b’Omer celebration — the end of the plague and the subsequent rebuilding of Torah.

The Joy of Freedom

But there might also be a different explanation of י”בשר תחמש. 

The Aruch Ha’shulchan  (O.C. 493:7) by Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein of Nevarduk, Belarus, 1829-1908, interestingly enough, writes in discussing the Lag b’Omer celebration: “They say that he [Rashbi] passed away on this day, and also that he left the cave on this day.” As the Gemara (Shabbos 33b) tells, Rashbi and his son were forced to flee from the Roman authorities, and they hid for 12 years in a cave. Without citing any source, the Aruch Ha’shulchan brings a tradition that it was on Lag b’Omer when they discovered that it was safe to leave. 

This, then, might be the meaning of י”בשר תחמש — that this was a day of immense joy, when he was finally free to leave the cave and resume his work disseminating Torah.

For over a year, we have found ourselves in a “cave” of sorts, limiting our excursions from our homes, in order to protect ourselves from a dangerous illness. Like Rashbi and his son, we have lived in a state of confinement.

We hope and pray that G-d will watch over and guard all of us just as He watched over Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, and that we will soon celebrate our “departure” from this isolation and come together in friendship, joy and love, amen. 

Rabbi Dov Loketch is a rabbi at Agudas Yisrael Mogen Avraham synagogue in Southfield.