Lag Ba'Omer is a multi-layered day of celebration which, while celebrated by many, is often misunderstood. In this blog, I will explain the different elements of this mysterious day and suggest how Lag Ba'Omer can be explored further - both with your children and students.
So what is Lag Ba'Omer?
The name ‘Lag Ba'Omer’ literally means ‘the thirty-third day of the Omer’, and it is the 33rd of the 49-day period between Pesach and Shavuot. During Temple times the Omer was a purely joyous occasion. We counted each day with a sense of enthusiasm as we approached the celebration of Shavuot, and we offered a special barley offering in the Temple.
Since the destruction of the Temple in 70CE the Omer offering is no longer brought to the Temple. However, the Omer is still counted, and by doing so, we help connect our memory of the Exodus of Egypt as celebrated on Pesach, and the giving of the Torah as celebrated on Shavuot.
However, just after the destruction of the Temple, this joyous period was overlaid with a tragedy. Rabbi Akiva, who was one of the greatest Rabbis and who lived during and after the destruction of the second Temple, had 24,000 students. But tragically all his students died in a 33-day period of the Omer. Given this huge loss to the Jewish people minor mourning customs such as not cutting hair and not getting married were established, and by doing so, a negative aspect of parts of the Omer period was introduced. Nevertheless, on the 33rd day - Lag Ba'Omer - these customs are lifted, which means that Lag Ba'Omer represents a cessation of a tragedy and a return to the original joy of the Omer.
However, Lag Ba'Omer has a further identity. One of the five new students who began learning with Rabbi Akiva after this tragedy was called Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (or sometimes referred to by his acronym ‘Rashbi’). Rashbi was an extraordinary student who understood both the laws of the Torah and the many of the secrets of the Torah (which we often refer to as ‘Kabbalah’). Just before he died, Rashbi shared some of those deep Torah secrets with his students, but rather than being sad, he instructed his students to celebrate on the anniversary of his death because it was just before his death that he shared these secrets. Since the Torah secrets taught by Rashbi were very intense and were likened to fire, it became customary to build bonfires on Lag Ba'Omer.
So Lag Ba'Omer is a day of restoration from human tragedy and revelation of Torah mysteries. But given this, how should we teach about Lag Ba'Omer at home or in the classroom?
As mentioned above, some people have the custom of lighting bonfires but we must remember that the creation of a bonfire on Lag Ba'Omer is merely symbolic of something much deeper.
Instead, I think we should treat Lag Ba'Omer as a magical window in time, in the same way that we treat ‘Platform 9¾’ as a magical window in space, and just as attending Hogwarts can teach a student much about how magic works, learning the secrets of the Torah as revealed by Rashbi can teach a person how the universe operates. It is this that the bonfire symbolises, and it is this which is perhaps the most powerful aspect of our celebration on Lag Ba'Omer.
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