The mourning customs observed during Sefirah are generally suspended – even canceled, according to some – come Lag B’Omer. The day is often marked by festivities, including bonfires. But what about Lag B’Omer warrants celebration?
Some (Meiri, Yevamos 62b) explain that the plague that killed R. Akiva’s students ended on Lag B’Omer. This explanation may be supported by a Midrash (cited by Derashos Rabbi Ibn Shuaib) that states that the plague that killed the students of R. Akiva ended “beperos ha’atzeres,” which, according to some, refers to Lag B’Omer.
But why do we treat Lag B’Omer as a festive day? The cessation of a terrible period seems to warrant relief, not celebration.
The Pri Chadash (493) suggests we act joyously on this day because of R. Akiva’s decision to teach new students once the plague ended. The Gemara (Yevamos 62b) relates that after Rabbi Akiva’s students died, “the world was desolate of Torah until Rabbi Akiva came to our rabbis in the south and taught his Torah to them.”
This second group of disciples consisted of R. Meir, R. Yehuda, R. Yosei, R. Shimon, and R. Elazar ben Shamua, who transmitted the Torah to future generations. The Chida (Tov Ayin 493:8) writes that R. Akiva actually began teaching this next generation of Torah scholars on Lag B’Omer. Thus, on Lag B’Omer we celebrate R. Akiva’s decision to adopt new students and continue the chain of the mesorah.
R. Shimon Bar Yochai and the Celebrations at Meron
Some connect Lag B’Omer celebrations to R. Shimon bar Yochai, the tanna to whom authorship of the Zohar is ascribed. R. Chaim Vital describes Lag B’Omer as the “hillula,” the anniversary of the death, of R. Shimon bar Yochai. Bnei Yissaschar (Maamar 3, Lag B’Omer 2) maintains that R. Shimon bar Yochai was born on Lag B’Omer. Some (Aruch HaShulchan 493:7) suggest that on Lag B’Omer R. Shimon bar Yochai “emerged from the cave” in which he was hiding from the Romans for over a decade.
Perhaps these explanations are the basis of the custom to visit the grave of R. Shimon bar Yochai in Meron on Lag B’Omer. R. Chaim Vital relates that his teacher, the Arizal, cut his son’s hair there on Lag B’Omer.
Modern Lag B’Omer celebrations in Meron began in 1833 and today attract hundreds of thousands of visitors. The late Israeli writer Shai Agnon (Elu ve’Elu) wrote: “One who has not seen the festivities of Lag B’Omer at the grave of R. Shimon bar Yochai in Meron has never seen true joy. Jews, in droves, ascend with songs and instruments, and come to this place from all of the cities of Israel and the lands of Edom and Yishmael, and stand there all night and day and learn…and pray and recite psalms.“
Not everyone was pleased by the festivities at Meron. R. Moshe Sofer, (Yopreh De’ah 236) for example, suggests that treating Lag B’Omer as a festival may violate the biblical prohibition of bal tosef! Despite the Chasam Sofer’s objections, however, Lag B’Omer is now observed around the world, often with bonfires accompanied by singing and dancing.
R. Shimon bar Yochai espoused a spiritually intense, almost out-of-this-world religious life. He believed the Jewish people should not engage in worldly pursuits, as “their work will be done by others” (Berachos 35b). Rather, they should devote themselves with such single-mindedness to Torah study that even interrupting one’s learning to say Shema is unnecessary (Yerushalmi, Berachos 1:2)!
He described himself and his son as “bnei aliya” (Sukka 45b) – individuals who transcend the mundaneness of this world. He criticized, and saw no value in, the infrastructure improvements of the Roman (Shabbos 33b), which eventually led him to flee and hide in a cave. Perhaps his demanding nature is why the halacha – which applies, of course, to all Jews – does not follow R. Shimon except in extenuating circumstances (Chullin 49a).
On Lag B’Omer, though, many attempt to taste religious intensity, as well as the depth and secrets of the Torah revealed by R. Shimon bar Yochai.
The Yarhzeit of the Rema
Interestingly, R. Shimon bar Yochai is not the only great rabbi to pass away on Lag B’Omer. The Rema (R. Moshe Isserles) did as well (Taz, Orach Chayim 420).
The Rema was born in 1530 and served as a rav and rosh yeshiva in Krakow. He authored numerous sefarim on Jewish thought, including commentaries on Esther (Mechir Yayim), the Moreh Nevuchim, and the Zohar and a philosophical work called Toras HaOlah.
Of course, he is best known as a posek. He authored numerous halachic responsa, a monograph on the laws of kashrus (Toras HaChatas), and a commentary to the Tur (Darchei Moshe). He also preserved the customs of Ashkenazic Jewry by writing – at age 42 – a commentary on R. Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Aruch known as the Mapa.
In numerous halachic rulings, the Rema displayed not only tremendous Torah scholarship, but also great sensitivity to ordinary Jews. For example, he once performed a wedding on Shabbos for a young orphan girl without a dowry, against the accepting ruling that weddings should not be held on Shabbos (Beitza 36b), since he feared that if the wedding were delayed it would be called off (Teshuvos 126).
In some ways, the Rema was a completely different religious persona than that of R. Shimon bar Yochai. He was knowledgeable in philosophy, astronomy, and kabbalah, but he also immersed himself in worldly affairs as a dayan and halachic authority. In his rulings, he was sensitive to each person’s individual circumstances (e.g., his rulings in relation to “hefsed meruba”) and was committed to preserving the established practices and customs of the Jewish masses.
Thus, on Lag B’Omer, not only should we celebrate the mesorah that continued after the tragic death of R. Akiva’s students and attempt to identify a bit more with R. Shimon bar Yochai’s lofty spiritual aspirations; we should also endeavor not to forget the Rema’s dedication to tradition, community, and concern for ordinary Jews.