Lag b’Omer, the 33rd day of the omer, is here! After the rush and excitement of Pesach, the clearing and restocking, the nearly four weeks of semi-mourning when we missed music and celebration, we can take a mental and spiritual break with this traditionally fun day in our calendar. Though in this unusual year Lag b’Omer has its own style.
Lag b’Omer (18 Iyar), the 33rd day of the omer, is on Friday this year, 30 April, and so some activities which would have occurred in the evening or night at the end of Lag b’Omer may have to be rescheduled.
Lag b’Omer marks the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who we refer to as Rashbi. He spent 13 years in hiding from the Romans, meditating and exploring the mystical and spiritual depths of the Torah. Many years later on the last day of his life, he revealed these mystical and profound secrets of the Torah to his disciples, instructing them to celebrate rather than mourn. This is the primary reason for the public celebrations which lighten our mood, bringing joy and happiness to all who participate.
Bonfires, barbeques, dancing and music all combine to lighten our spirits, and inspire us to reflect on Rashbi’s gift to us. The light and heat of the bonfires remind us of these secrets, which are hidden in the Zohar and will be revealed to us in the times of Moshiach.
With or without a bonfire or bbq you can enjoy the spirit of Lag b’Omer, with hot dogs or burgers (meaty or veggie, either will pop the day), pizza slices, baked potatoes with humus or guacamole, fruit or marshmallow kebabs (try a toasty finish under the grill). Marinate chicken wings, chicken cubes or goujons for a spicy or sweet taste, and bbq, grill or bake. Slip in some burekas with the baking. And while the grill is hot use it for baby corn, mushrooms and cherry tomatoes. Pretzels and a chocolate fondue bowl, or vegetable sticks and a dips selection will add to the fun.
Being out in the countryside and shooting toy bows and arrows (with care, and into the air, not at a target) are a traditional way for children to celebrate lag b’Omer. This reminds us that during the lifetime of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, rainbows were not seen in the sky. Rainbows are the reminder of punishment devised by Hashem, and given to us when he ended the flood. Rashbi protected the world from this punishment by his own spiritual merit during his lifetime.
The second aspect of Lag b’Omer, which is intricately bound up with the first, concerns the students (Talmidim) of Rabbi Akiva. Over a period of time they had become less tolerant and kind to each other, in the way they propounded their Talmudic learning. As a result all his 24,000 students died in a plague, leaving Rabbi Akiva to restart his Yeshiva again with just 5 new students.
On Lag b’Omer the plague suspended for a day, and we mark this by allowing the restrictions of the Omer to be lifted. Haircuts, weddings, music, are all crammed into this brief respite, before resuming the mourning period which will continue until at least the end of Iyar.
Rabbi Akiva was the teacher of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and we can celebrate that Rashbi was not one of those students punished for lack of consideration to his peers.
In this year of pandemic, we can have a better idea of what those thousands of deaths meant, how the one day of relief was a cause for immense gladness, and how lack of achdus among us can have the potential for such tragedy.
Outdoors or indoors, enjoy the fun, keep safe, and celebrate!