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All about Lag B’Omer

WMass Jewish Ledger | 5-20-11

What is Lag B’Omer?

Lag B’omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, falls this year on May 22. Lag B’Omer is a festive day of rejoicing, because on this day, the students of Rabbi Akiva did not die. The Talmud relates that in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot a plague raged amongst the disciples of the great sage Rabbi Akiva “because they did not act respectfully towards each other.” These weeks are therefore observed as a period of mourning, with various joyous activities proscribed by law and custom. On Lag B’omer the dying ceased. Thus, Lag B’Omer also carries the theme of Ahavat Yisrael, the imperative to love and respect one’s fellow.
Lag B’Omer falls on the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, which corresponds to the date of the death – the yahrzeit – of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, one of the great sages from the era of the Mishna. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who lived in the second century of the Common Era, was the first to publicly teach the mystical dimension of the Torah known as the “Kabbalah,” and is the author of the basic work of Kabbalah, the Zohar. On the day of his passing, Rabbi Shimon instructed his disciples to mark the date as “the day of my joy.” The Chassidic masters explain that the final day of a righteous person’s earthly life marks the point at which “all his deeds, teachings and work” achieve their culminating perfection and the zenith of their impact upon our lives. So each Lag B’Omer we celebrate Rabbi Shimon’s life and the revelation of the esoteric soul of Torah.
This article was culled from www.Chabad.org and www.Torah.org.

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What is the counting of the Omer?

You shall count for yourselves – from the day after the Shabbat, from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving – seven Shabbats, they shall be complete. Until the day after the seventh sabbath you shall count, fifty days… -Leviticus 23:15-16
You shall count for yourselves seven weeks, from when the sickle is first put to the standing crop shall you begin counting seven weeks. Then you will observe the Festival of Shavu’ot for the L-rd, your G-d -Deuteronomy 16:9-10
According to the Torah, we are obligated to count the days from Passover to Shavuot. This period is known as the counting of the Omer. An omer is a unit of measure. On the second day of Passover, in the days of the Temple, an omer of barley was cut down and brought to the Temple as an offering. This grain offering was referred to as the Omer.
Every night, from the second night of Passover to the night before Shavu’ot, we recite a blessing and state the count of the Omer in both weeks and days. The counting is intended to remind us of the link between Passover, which commemorates the Exodus, and Shavu’ot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah. It reminds us that the redemption from slavery was not complete until we received the Torah.
This period is a time of partial mourning, during which weddings, parties, and dinners with dancing are not conducted, and haircuts are forbidden, in memory of a plague during the lifetime of Rabbi Akiba.
This information is reprinted from Judaism 101, www.jewfaq.org.

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Who was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai?

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was a student of Rabbi Akiva, who was the spiritual leader of the Bar Kochba Revolt against Rome in 135 CE, which began in glory and ended in tragedy. His teacher was one of the four great Sages who entered the “Pardes,” the “Orchard”; specifically, who probed the depths of Kabbalah, and came out mentally and spiritually whole. Clearly, Rabbi Akiva was the recipient of a living tradition that he passed on orally to his beloved student, Rabbi Shimon.

One of the largest Lag B’Omer celebrations takes place in and around Rabbi Shimon's tomb.

As a student of the spiritual leader of the revolt, bar Yochai was pursued relentlessly by the Romans. He and his son, Rabbi Elazar ben Shimon, took refuge in a cave, where they remained for thirteen years.
During those years, Rabbi Shimon studied Torah with his son, the Revealed Torah and the Hidden, or Secret, Torah, the “Torat HaSod,” also known as “Kabbalah,” and translated, or mistranslated as “Jewish Mysticism.”
Rabbi Shimon wrote down the latter material, for the first time, in a book called the “Zohar,” meaning “Splendor” or “Radiance.” This mystical tradition, kept alive by the thirteenth century Torah scholar Ramban, and others, resurfaced with a vengeance in the sixteenth century, and became the splendor and the glory of the “Ari” (the “Lion”), Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, and his followers in Tzefat, or Safed, Palestine. It also became the basis of the unique spirituality of Chassidism, founded in the eighteenth century, by Yisrael ben Eliezer, the “Baal Shem Tov,” in Eastern Europe.
The first time Rabbi Shimon came out of the cave, he was completely out of touch with the people of his generation. He observed Jews farming the land, and engaged in other normal pursuits, and made known his disapproval, “How can people engage themselves in matters of this world and neglect matters of the next world?”
Whereupon a heavenly voice was heard, which said “Bar Yochai, go back to the cave! You are no longer fit for the company of other human beings.”
Rabbi Shimon went back to the cave, reoriented his perspective to some extent, and emerged again. This time, he was able to interact with the people of his generation, and become a great teacher of Torah, the Revealed and the Hidden.
Reprinted from the Orthodox Union, www.ou.org.

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What are Lag B’Omer’s customs and traditions

There are several customs and traditions associated with Lag B’Omer. Here are a few culled from Chabad.org.

It is traditional to light bonfires.

• It is traditional to light bonfires on Lag B’Omer eve, especially in Israel. These commemorate the immense light that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai introduced into the world via his mystical teachings. This was especially true on the day of his passing, Lag B’Omer, when he revealed to his disciples secrets of the Torah, whose profundity and intensity the world had yet to experience. The Zohar relates that the house was filled with fire and intense light, to the point that the assembled could not approach or even look at Rabbi Shimon. One of the largest Lag B’Omer celebrations takes place in and around Rabbi Shimon’s tomb, located in the northern Israeli village of Meron. Hundreds of thousands attend the festivities, and the round-the-clock celebration, singing and dancing are unparalleled.

• Children customarily go out into the fields and play with toy bows and arrows. This commemorates the midrashic tradition that no rainbow was seen during Rabbi Shimon’s lifetime. Rainbows first appeared after Noah’s flood, when God promised to never again devastate the world. When the world is deserving of punishment, God sends a rainbow instead. Rabbi Shimon’s merit protected the world, rendering the rainbow superfluous.

• In some circles it is customary to eat carobs on Lag B’Omer. This commemorates a lifesaving miracle that Rabbi Shimon experienced. For a period of thirteen years, Rabbi Shimon and his son were fugitives from the Roman regime, in hiding in a cave in Northern Israel. Miraculously a carob tree grew at the entrance of the cave, providing nourishments for its two holy occupants.

• All the mourning practices of the Omer are suspended on Lag B’Omer. Permitted are weddings, haircuts, music, etc.

• Family and school outings and picnics are traditionally held on Lag B’Omer.

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