Lag B’Omer – some thoughts

Consider This
By Rabbi Greg Alexander

At the end of the month Jews around the world will be observing Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the omer, a ritual that links Pesach and Shavuot. While the weeks of sefirat ha-omer is considered a period of mourning during which weddings are not celebrated, the 33rd day of the omer is one of the three exceptions (the others being Rosh Chodesh Iyar and Rosh Chodesh Sivan). This is because Lag B’Omer is the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai, a mystic who defied the Roman ban on teaching and studying Torah. 

The source of sorrow of this period in the Jewish calendar is a Talmudic legend (Yevamoth 62b), according to which 24 000 disciples of Rabbi Akiva died of croup between Pesach and Shavuot. Historians surmise that the real reason for all these deaths was the fact that Rabbi Akiva was the spiritual leader of the Bar Kochba rebellion against Rome. Rabbi Akiva was arrested and executed by the Romans, and it is plausible that his students were killed during the Roman military action against the Jewish rebels. 

The question is why the period of mourning is suspended on the yahrzeit of a great rabbi of the second century CE? It is precisely because Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai was an important Torah scholar and mystic that his yahrzeit is a hillulah, a festivity, accompanied by bonfires. This custom is based on the idea that Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai brought spiritual light into the world through his teaching of Torah and his contribution to the mystical understanding of God’s Essence. 

In rabbinic thought the anniversary of the death of a tzadik should be a celebration of their life and not an occasion for mourning their passing. According to Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 7:1 “A good name is better than fragrant oil, and the day of death is better than the day of birth”. Midrash Kohelet Rabba explains, “When a person is born, everyone is joyous; when the person dies, everyone weeps. But that should not be so; rather, when a person is born no one should be joyous, as they do not know the challenges and actions that will confront that individual, and whether the person will be righteous or wicked, good or bad. When the person dies, they should rejoice that the person passed away with a good name and departed from the world in peace”. If one follows this understanding, it makes sense to celebrate the life of someone who left the world a better place for having lived in it, and for having brought the light of the Divine Presence into the world by their courageous defiance of oppression and persecution. Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai was such a person.

During this difficult time for Israel, the Jewish People and the world, may Lag B’Omer 5784 remind us of the value of the many righteous lives that bring God’s light into the world. That there is always hope  —  even in the darkest of times.

Temple Israel

• Published in the May 2024 issue – Click here to start reading.

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