There are several reasons why we celebrate Lag Ba’Omer.1 Lag Ba’Omer marks the cessation of the plague that killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students.2 It might just be that this “plague” was the failed Bar Kochba revolt in which Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed by the Romans. Lag Ba’Omer, of course, also celebrates the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.3 Among his many accomplishments, it is widely believed that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai authored the Zohar, the primary work on Kabbalah.4 It is also noted that Lag Ba’Omer is the day when the manna began to fall from Heaven to sustain the Jewish people while they were in the desert.5
Although one might think the day ought to be called “Lag La’Omer,” as most people count each day of the omer with the concluding “la’Omer” formula, it was decided universally to refer to the day as “Lag Ba’Omer” as these two words are the same gematria as the word “Moshe” – referring to the belief that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was a reincarnation of Moshe Rabbeinu.6 It is also said that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai reached the same levels of greatness that Moshe Rabbeinu did.7
Bonfires are a prominent feature of Lag Ba’Omer celebrations. There are a number of explanations as to what these bonfires represent. Some suggest that they recall the fire that was said to have erupted at the moment of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s death. It is also intended to recall Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s gaze, which was said to be as powerful as fire and vaporized anything which evoked his disfavor.8 Finally, bonfires represent the “fire” of Torah, especially the esoteric side of Torah, which Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai revealed through the Zohar and his other teachings.9
Celebrating a Yahrzeit?
Although one might think that a day of fasting and introspection would be in order for the yahrzeit of a tzaddik, as is the case regarding the yahrzeit of Moshe Rabbeinu,10 Lag Ba’Omer is uniquely different. This is because Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai requested that the day of his death become an annual celebration11 as it is the day on which he revealed many secrets of the Torah.12 It is also said to be the day Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai received semicha from Rabbi Akiva. Many also consider celebrating Lag Ba’Omer appropriate because Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was miraculously saved from the Roman government, which had sentenced him to death for spreading Torah.13
In Israel and The Diaspora
Those in Israel who are able to ascend to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron are encouraged to do so. Once there, one should hold a meal in honor of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.14 Rabbi Ovadia Bartenura writes: “On the eighteenth day of Iyar, the day of the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, people from surrounding areas gather and light huge bonfires in addition to lighting candles. Many barren women have been helped and many sick have been healed…”15 Those who are unable to travel to Meron should at least study the teachings of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai throughout the day of Lag Ba’Omer.16
Some argue that Lag Ba’Omer celebrations were intended to be reserved primarily for the Land of Israel.17 Nevertheless, they are quite widespread in the Diaspora as well. There are many Chassidic Rebbes who hold special gatherings in honor of Lag Ba’Omer, complete with singing and dancing in honor of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. It is also considered auspicious to visit the tombs of other tzaddikim on Lag Ba’Omer.18 Lag Ba’Omer is also the yahrzeit of the Rema, and many visit his grave in Cracow on this day.19 The three days prior as well as the three days following a yahrzeit are considered to be connected with the yahrzeit. As such, one who is unable to reach a grave on the yahrzeit of a deceased should at least attempt to do so during these days.20
(To be continued)
- Kaf HaChaim, OC 493:27.
- Aruch HaShulchan, OC 493:5.
- Minchat Elazar 4:64, cited in Nitei Gavriel Minhagei Lag Ba’Omer. There are eminent authorities such as the Chida, the Ben Ish Chai and Rabbi Chaim Vital who are of the opinion that Lag Ba’Omer is not the Yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at all. They argue that this claim is based on scribal errors. See http://www.shofar.net/site/ARDetile.asp?id=8159 for more on this. See also Divrei Yitzchak (Kaduri) Shaar Moadim V’Zmanim 5.
- The authorship of the Zohar is the subject of much controversy. Some scholars attribute the Zohar entirely to Rashbi while others argue that it was Rabbi Moses de Leon who wrote it. Yet others suggest that it was started by Rashbi or contains thoughts and teachings of Rashbi, but was compiled and completed by de Leon.
- Chatam Sofer, YD 233.
- Shemen Sasson Mechaverecha cited in Birurei Chaim 3:29:2 footnote 29, 30.
- Eleh Hem Moadai page 382; Nitei Gavriel, Hilchot Pesach Vol. 3 p. 268 in the footnote.
- Shabbat 33b.
- It must be noted that the idea of lighting bonfires is not of Jewish origin. Bonfires were known in Christian Europe as a way to honor Christian saints as far back as the tenth century. They don’t appear as a Jewish practice until the 16th century. The word bonfire derives from the words “fire of bones.” The term became to be used for any large fires used in celebrations, although it is originally associated with various Christian saints, particularly John and Peter. Most Christian scholars say that the practice of celebrating saints with bonfires is traced to pagan, pre-Christian sources which were later adapted by Christianity. Indeed, the Celtics made bonfires to honor some of their deities and spirits. From: http://www.kashrut.org/forum/viewpost.asp?mid=8751. Nevertheless, it may just be that lighting bonfires in honor of the dead may have indeed have a Jewish Scriptural source, see: Divrei Hayamim 2 16:14. See also: http://parsha.blogspot.com/2008/05/is-burning-pyre-to-rabbi-shimon-bar.html.
- Sho’el U’meishiv 39.
- Kaf HaChaim, OC 493:27.
- Kaf HaChaim, OC 493:26; Ben Pesach L’Shavuot pages 314-315.
- Shem Aryeh, OC 14. Cf. Yud-Tes Kislev and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.
- Kaf HaChaim, OC 493:26.
- Hilula D’Rashbi p.89. Note: There is reason to believe that Rabbi Ovadia Bertenura was referring to the 28th of Iyar Yahrzeit celebration for Shmuel HaNavi in Jerusalem and not the 18th of Iyar celebrations in Meron. See: “Darkei Tzion” p.33-34 available at http://www.hebrewbooks.org/9488.
- It is especially good to learn the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai found on Shabbat 33b.
- Minchat Elazar 4:64.
- Nitei Gavriel, Minhagei Lag Ba’Omer.
- Nitei Gavriel, Minhagei Lag Ba’Omer.
- Taamei HaMinhagim page 268 note 43; Nitei Gavriel, Minhagei Lag Ba’Omer.