Lag ba-Omer

Lag Ba-Omer

Type of Holiday: Religious (Jewish)
Date of Observation: Eighteenth day of the Jewish lunar month of Iyar (usually falls in May), or the thirty-third of the fifty days separating Passover and Shavuot
Where Celebrated: United States, Israel, and by Jews throughout the world
Symbols and Customs: Bonfires, Bow and Arrow
Related Holidays: Passover, Shavuot

ORIGINS

Lag Ba-Omer is one of the traditions of Judaism, one of the oldest continuously observed religions in the world. Its history extends back beyond the advent of the written word. Its people trace their roots to a common ancestor, Abraham, and then back even farther to the very moment of creation.

According to Jewish belief, the law given to the Jewish people by God contained everything they needed to live a holy life, including the ability to be reinterpreted in new historical situations. Judaism, therefore, is the expression of the Jewish people, attempting to live holy (set apart) lives in accordance with the instructions given by God.

Although obedience to the law is central to Judaism, there is no one central authority. Sources of divine authority are God, the Torah, interpretations of the Torah by respected teachers, and tradition. Religious observances and the study of Jewish law are conducted under the supervision of a teacher called a rabbi.

There are several sects within Judaism. Orthodox Judaism is characterized by an affirmation of the traditional Jewish faith, strict adherence to customs such as keeping the Sabbath, participation in ceremonies and rituals, and the observance of dietary regulations. Conservative Jewish congregations seek to retain many ancient traditions but without the accompanying demand for strict observance. Reform Judaism stresses modern biblical criticism and emphasizes ethical teachings more than ritualistic observance. Hasidism is a mystical sect of Judaism that teaches enthusiastic prayer as a means of communion with God. The Reconstructionist movement began early in the twentieth century in an effort to "reconstruct" Judaism with the community rather than the synagogue as its center.

The name of this Jewish holiday, Lag Ba-Omer, means "thirty-three omer," omer being the Hebrew word for a sheaf of barley or wheat. According to the book of Leviticus, God told the Jews to make an offering of a sheaf of barley on each of the fifty days between PASSOVER and SHAVUOT. After the evening service, the number of the day was solemnly announced, and this ceremony was known as "the counting of the omer." When the fifty days were over, it was time to celebrate the harvest and to bring to the Temple two loaves of bread made from the new wheat.

Why the thirty-third day of this period was singled out may have something to do with an ancient pagan festival that was celebrated around the same time of year. The Romans believed that it was unlucky to marry in May before the harvest because this was the season when the souls of the dead came back to earth to haunt the living, and they could only be appeased by funerals, not weddings. This unlucky period lasted thirty-two days and ended with a festival on the thirty-third day, which was an occasion for celebration because the prohibition on joyful events had been lifted.

Why the seven weeks between PASSOVER and the harvest came to be regarded as a period of semi-mourning for the Jews is not entirely clear. No doubt the character of this period changed after the destruction of the second Temple, when people realized they could no longer bring the season's first barley and the two loaves of bread there as offerings. It was also natural for farmers to feel some anxiety at this time of year, when the success or failure of the crops depended on the weather and other factors beyond their control. The thirty-third day may have been intended as a much-needed break from the otherwise anxious and somber omer period.

There are other theories about the origins of this holiday as well. One is that it was the anniversary of the day when Bar Kochva and his Jewish warriors temporarily captured Jerusalem from the Romans in their fight to reestablish the Jewish nation. Another is that it marked the end of the epidemic that killed 24,000 students of the famous Rabbi Akiva during the first century. Still another links the holiday to the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Bar Yohai, a great Hebrew scholar who refused to obey the Romans when they forbade him to teach or to study the Torah.

Like the Christian LENT, the omer days are associated with certain restrictions. It is forbidden to get married, to shave or cut hair, to wear new clothes, to listen to music, or to attend any kind of public entertainment during the seven weeks. Whether this is because it was originally a period of mourning for certain historical events or because the weeks preceding the harvest were regarded as a time of "suspended animation," the fact remains that these prohibitions are lifted for a twenty-four-hour period on the thirty-third day. It is a popular day for Jewish weddings, for concerts and musical events, for wearing new clothes, and for lighting BONFIRES . In many American cities, Lag Ba-Omer is observed as Jewish Book Day or Scholars' Day in memory of Rabbi Akiva, Bar Yohai, and other scholars who upheld the right of Jews to follow the dictates of their religion and culture. Jewish books are exhibited in public libraries, and lectures on Jewish literature are held. At Meron, the burial place of Bar Yohai, Hasidic Jews from all over Israel and neighboring countries gather in his honor.

For children, particularly in Israel, Lag Ba-Omer is a day for outings and picnics. Armed with BOWS AND ARROWS , they go with their teachers out in the woods, where a picnic lunch is followed by archery contests. Hebrew schools usually arrange their annual outings to coincide with this holiday. Pageants and plays depicting the historical events associated with the eighteenth day of Iyar are also popular.

Lag Ba-Omer is not regarded as a sacred holiday, nor is it distinguished by any special service or prayer in the synagogue.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Bonfires

According to legend, the war hero Bar Kochva and his men lit fires in Jerusalem as a way of signaling villages far away that they had captured the city from the powerful Roman army. These villages, in turn, lit more fires-until the whole country knew about the victory. To commemorate this event, children throughout Israel start gathering scraps of wood, dry branches, rags, and other burnable items a few days before Lag Ba-Omer. They light huge bonfires on every empty lot they can find, sing songs, dance around the fire, and eat potatoes that have been baked in the hot embers.

Another Lag Ba-Omer custom associated with bonfires dates back to the sixteenth century. Orthodox Jewish parents bring their three-year-old boys to Meron, the village in Galilee where Rabbi Bar Yohai, the father of Jewish mysticism, and his son are buried. There a rabbi or other Jewish dignitary gives the young boys their first haircut, and the locks of hair are thrown into a bonfire. As a result of the Meron celebration, this custom has spread throughout Israel.

It has long been traditional in many parts of the world to light bonfires at the end of April or the beginning of May to scare off witches and demons. In ancient Rome, fires were lit at the PARILIA on April 21; in England, fires are still kindled at crossroads on ST. GEORGE'S DAY, April 23. The ancient Celtic festival of BELTANE (May 1) was also marked with bonfires, a custom that still survives in the Scottish Highlands and parts of Ireland. In fact, this Jewish holiday has much in common with the European MAY DAY, which would appear to support the theory that it originated as a rustic festival linked to the harvest.

Bow and Arrow

The Israeli custom of sending children out in the woods on Lag Ba-Omer to shoot with bows and arrows has its roots in both legend and folklore. In Germany, April 30 was WALPURGIS NIGHT, a time when demons and evil spirits were believed to roam the earth. It was common at one time to shoot arrows at these troublesome spirits, and in Germany, it is still common for rural people to go out in the woods and shoot arrows on the morning of May 1. In England, it is a popular day for archery contests-the bow and arrow being associated with Robin Hood, who is derived from the chief of the goblins and mischievous spirits, Robin o' the Wood. It is interesting to note that Israeli children take their bows and arrows to the cemetery as well as the forest. This might represent another link with ancient MAY DAY customs (see B ONFIRES ), which often included dances and gatherings in graveyards.

There are other explanations for the custom in Israel. After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Titus, the Roman general, Rabbi Akiva decided that the best way to get rid of the Roman conquerors was to teach his students how to fight. To avoid arousing suspicion, they dressed up as hunters with bows and arrows and went out in the woods to practice.

Another tradition links the bow and arrow to Rabbi Bar Yohai. Because he refused to obey the Roman decree against the study of the Torah and continued to teach his students, his life was perpetually in danger. He finally escaped to a cave in the mountains of Galilee, where he lived for 13 years by eating the fruit of the carob tree and drinking from a nearby spring. His students visited him each year on Lag Ba-Omer, disguising themselves as hunters by carrying bows and arrows.

FURTHER READING

Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Edidin, Ben. Jewish Holidays and Festivals. 1940. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1993. Gaer, Joseph. Holidays Around the World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Gaster, Theodor H. Festivals of the Jewish Year. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1953. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Renberg, Dalia Hardof. The Complete Family Guide to Jewish Holidays. New York: Adama Books, 1985.

WEB SITES

Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center www.chabad.org/library/article.asp?AID=42944 Judaica Guide www.judaica-guide.com/lag_ba'omer

Lag ba-Omer

18th day of the Jewish month of Iyyar, or the 33rd day of the 50 days that separate Passover and Shavuot
The name of this Jewish holiday means "thirty-three omer," an omer being a sheaf of barley or wheat. In the biblical book of Leviticus, the people were commanded by Jehovah to make an offering of a sheaf of barley on each of the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot. After the evening service, the number of the day was solemnly announced, and in time this ceremony came to be known as "the counting of the omer."
Why the 33rd day of this period was singled out may have something to do with an ancient pagan festival of the forest that was celebrated at this same time. Another story claims that the plague that had been decimating the students of Rabbi Akiba in the second century suddenly and miraculously stopped on this day. In any case, the mid-harvest festival of Lag ba-Omer represents a break in the otherwise solemn season between Passover and Shavuot.
SOURCES:
BkFest-1937, p. 207
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 137
DictWrldRel-1989, p. 567
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 323
OxYear-1999, p. 728
RelHolCal-2004, p. 52
References in periodicals archive ?
Finally, here is a most poignant account from the archive of the celebration of the minor Jewish holiday of Lag ba-Omer in the Warsaw Ghetto in May of 1942:
Based on my fieldwork as well as having become familiar with the so-called "Meron" repertoire through recorded and print sources,(13) it does not seem appropriate to refer to the totality of the music performed at the Lag ba-Omer pilgrimage as "Meron," because what is performed there does not represent a unified genre.
Celebrated on the 33rd day after Pesach, the pilgrimage on Lag ba-Omer was originally celebrated by Sephardic Jews.
As Hajdu and Mazor noted in their text to the LP Hasidic Tunes of Dancing & Rejoining, MB's performance at Lag ba-Omer of 5 May, 1969 included "the first playing of the niggun at Meron, at the nocturnal ceremony beside the tomb of Rabbi Yohanan the Shoemaker.