Of all the strange things we Jews do to commemorate our holidays, Lag B’Omer has got to have some of the stranger customs with particularly vague and questionable origins. In fact, there’s only a few hints to Lag B’Omer before the 17th century, when we start to see some of the customs popularized.
The 33rd day of counting the Omer between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot commemorates the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi), who revealed Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah) to the Jewish people (or at least to his disciples) after hiding from the Romans for 13 years in a cave in the town of Peki’in.
Normally when someone dies, we’re not particularly happy, and we don’t memorialize his death with celebrations.
So some question if Rashbi really died (שמת) on that day, or if we think so because of a printing error in a book, and it was actually a day Rashbi was happy (שמח) about an a particular event.
And then there’s that matter of the revolt against the Romans. Depending on which version of the story you hear, it’s the day when the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying – either because the Romans stopped killing them (because they killed them all), or the plague that was killing them was over.
To start off the celebrations, we make bonfires, very big bonfires, and pretty much try to burn anything that’s isn’t nailed down. And if it is nailed down, that what crowbars are for.
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Sometimes the fire department has to be called out.
Firefighters in Bnei Brak on Lag B’Omer. Firefighter Photos by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90
Many people (and we mean quite a lot) go to Meron for Lag B’Omer to light those bonfires.
Meron is where Rashbi is buried. That we know for sure.
The bonfires either represent the intense light and fire introduced by Rashbi, or alternatively it was the signalling method the students of Rabbi Akiva used to let the others know they were still alive or that the Romans were coming.
Then there’s the bow and arrow. If you’re looking at the military explanation, it’s kind of self-explanatory.
Jewish men shooting a bow and arrow in Meron on Lag B’omer. Photo by Moshe Azriel/Flash90
Another strange explanation is that the students of Rabbi Akiva told the Romans they were carrying their bows and arrows to hunt animals, when in reality they were going into the woods to learn Torah together. In those years, the Romans were busy outlawing Jewish practices (Shabbat, Brit Mila and Learning Torah).
But seriously, have you ever heard of a Jewish person hunting an animal for food? We shecht (slaughter) our animals with a very sharp ritual knife. Did the Romans really believe that? Or is this just another obfuscation of the Jewish revolt?
The spiritual explanation has to do with the story that no rainbows (קשת=bow) were seen in the sky during Rashbi’s lifetime. The rainbow has a mixed connotation. It’s a reminder that God promised Noah that He would never again destroy the world by flood, but it’s also a reminder that humanity sinned gravely and is still sinning and deserves punishment but God is holding back.
And then we have the Upsherin, the custom where 3-year-old boys get their first haircut – except for the payos (sidelocks).
Again, this is a custom that only a few hundred years old, and has no clear connection to Lag B’Omer that we are aware of. But it is exciting to give your 3-year-old a haircut for the first time and watch him transform from a toddler to a child.
An Upsherin. Photo by Yossi Zeliger/Flash90
One thing is for sure, Lag B’Omer beats Burning Man hands down.
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