Lag b’Omer … What is it?
This is a question frequently asked, even by Jews, when mentioning the Jewish holiday of Lag b’Omer. To the English speaker, the first word sounds like “log” – the wood you place on a campfire. This auditory cue is further supported by the fact that this holiday is celebrated with bonfires. However, “lag” ~ לג, in Hebrew, is actually a number ~ 33 (lamed=30 + gimel=3). On Lag b’Omer we reach the 33rd day of the Omer. This, in itself, requires more explanation … What is an Omer?
An omer is an ancient Israelite measure of dry grain equal to just over two cups. In the times when the Temple stood (the destruction of the 2nd Temple occurred in the year 70 C.E. on the Gregorian calendar, so it has been quite a while since this agricultural ritual was conducted), an omer of barley was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem on Pesach/Passover. Seven weeks (49 days) later a new grain sacrifice (wheat) was brought to the Temple ~ this holiday, we call Shavuot (weeks).* Over time, the ritual of counting these days and weeks between Pesach and Shavuot became a liturgical event rather than a physical one of harvest, travel, and ritual sacrifice as a way of expressing gratitude to the Source of Blessing. Counting the Omer (S’firat ha’Omer) was imbued with additional meaning by the Kabbalists (for more on Counting the Omer, click here).
As in other religions, holidays have changed over time and pagan celebrations have been repurposed or repackaged as religious holidays. The origins of Lag b’Omer (which is always on the 18th of the Hebrew month of Iyar) are not in Torah and this minor festival likely stems from ancient pagan lore and superstitions and over time, the date has become associated with joyous events ~ it is said to be when manna first fell in the desert, and victories in the face of difficult circumstances ~ Bar Kochba’s leadership of the revolt that drove the Romans out of Judea from 132-135 C.E., the cessation of the plague that devastated Rabbi Akiba’s followers, celebrating the life and Torah scholarship (even when forbidden by the Romans) of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (to whom the great mystical work, the Zohar, is attributed though it was likely written by Moses de Leon in Spain many centuries later). R’ Shimon bar Yochai successfully hid from the Romans for 13 years in a cave with his son, studying Torah, died on Lag b’Omer in the Galilee near Mt. Meron.
Because the Omer period also coincides with times of great Jewish suffering including massacres during the First Crusade (1096 C.E.) and the Cossack pogroms in Poland (1648), this period is a somber one and weddings are not traditionally held. But on Lag b’Omer, the heaviness and introspection of Sefirat ha’Omer lifts for a day of revelry, singing, dancing, picnicking, campfires, and communal celebration of bravery and triumph.