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Quality: Joy and Celebration – Lag BaOmer
Today is Lag BaOmer, a welcome break from the month of mourning. Counting the Omer marks the 49 days between the second night of Pesakh (Passover) and the 50th day, Shavuot, the days we honor the receiving of Torah. During Omer, there are no weddings or other festive celebrations, except Pesakh Sh’eni, the Second Passover and Lag BaOmer. Many Jewish men do not cut their hair and some also do not shave or trim their beards.
Lag BaOmer is a day for weddings, picnics, haircuts, and bonfires. In Israel, many families will take their three-year-old sons to Meron, for their first haircut – If you read to the end, you'll know why.
Counting Omer began as a celebration of the day we left Mitzrayim (Egypt) and our travels to God’s Mountain, Mount Sinai. In that realm, Lag BaOmer is said to be the day we received Manna to aid us on our journey. From the mystical viewpoint, Manna is seen as the spiritual food we needed to be ready for being with God and receiving Torah at Sinai.
The Talmud tells us that Omer is a time of semi-mourning because it was during this season that thousands of students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva died from a plague; a plague caused by the disrespectful ways in which they treated one another. Of course, this statement needs to be unpacked at another time.
Rabbi Akiva was an ardent supporter of Rabbi Simeon bar Koseva (or Kosiba). Simeon, a very charismatic figure, was given the nickname Bar Kokhba, “Son of a Star.” The name is based on a verse in Numbers 24.17 from the mouth of Balak: …there shall step forth a star out of Ya’akov… a scepter shall rise out of Yisrael…
Bar Kokhba spent over a decade planning rebellion and his actions divided our rabbis. Those supporting him believed he was the M’shiakh. The Bar KoKhba rebellion is easy to research, so I am not going to share much more, except that in the end the Roman's regained control. Thousands of Y’hudaim, including most of Rabbi Akiva’s students, died. However, the rabbis could not directly reference the rebellion as they were still under Roman rule – thus, the reference to a plague.
As you may be able to imagine, the mystics and kabbalists embraced Simeon’s story.
Another reference speaks of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, a student of Akiva who survived. He is said to have continued to speak against Roman rule and had to leave or be killed. Legend tells us that he and his son, Eleazer, hid in a cave for 12 years where they were sustained by a miraculous pond and a carob tree. During that time, the two prayed and studied Torah, and Simeon’s self-discipline became quite strong – too strong, some would say.
When Simeon emerged, he was completely dismayed by ordinary work, and every where he looked and saw such things, his gaze would start fires. God was not happy with this behavior and placed them back in the cave for another year.
As you may be able to imagine, the mystics and kabbalists embraced Simeon’s story. He is said to have died on Lag BaOmer and his tomb is in Meron, a small city in the northern part of Israel near S’afed. Many Askenazi Israelis take their three-year-old sons to Meron for their upsheren, a public ritual of a son’s first haircut (The Sephardic community observe the haircut custom on the 34th Day of Omer). Bonfires are also lit on Lag BaOmer throughout of Israel.
Whatever your customs, today is a day of Joy and Celebration within Joy and Celebration!