Yom Sheini, 22 Tishri 5780
Shemini Azeret Monday, 21 October 2019
Lag B'Omer 2012

Lag B’Omer by Rabbi Alexandra Wright
9 May 2012

As a child, growing up in the Liberal movement, I was aware of the major festivals and feasts of the Jewish year and the days of commemoration such as Tisha B’Av, on which we remembered not only the destruction of the two Temples, but also included prayers and readings to remember the Shoah.· I cannot ever remember, however, being taught about Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the period known as Sefirat Ha-Omer, the Counting of the Omer betweenPesach and Shavuot.

In Leviticus 23 – one of three festival calendars found in the Torah – the counting of the omer (a ‘sheaf’ of the harvest) is to begin ‘the day after the Sabbath.· ‘You shall count off seven weeks…fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Eternal One’ (23:15-16).· A logical interpretation of this verse would suggest that the counting begins on the day after the Shabbat in Pesach, so that the festival of the fiftieth day, which here is designated as mikra-kodesh – ‘a sacred occasion,’ would always fall on a Sunday.[1] However, the Pharisees interpreted ‘Shabbat’ in this context to refer to the first day of the festival of Pesach itself, so that the counting began on the second evening of Pesach.· There is no mention here of the minor festival of Lag B’Omer.

How did it arise and what significance does it have for us as Liberal Jews today?· Perhaps first we need to understand the significance of the forty-nine days between Pesach and Shavuot.· Although not necessarily widespread, there was a tradition that prohibited weddings and other joyous celebrations, music and dancing during the period of the Omer.· It was a time of semi-mourning and, as a sign of grief observant Jews refrained and still refrain from cutting their hair.

Such restrictions were not only limited to the Jewish people.· The words ‘Marry in May, rue the day’ come from a poem that lists the auspicious months in which one should be married, reflecting an ancient, pagan superstition that may have had something to do with awaiting the outcome of the crops.· May was an uneasy time, a source of concern and worry for the ancient farmer.

The Talmud (in Yevamot 52b) associates this period of time with a legend about Rabbi Akiva whose twenty-four thousand students all died at the same time of a mysterious and cruel disease, ‘between Pesach and Shavuot’ because they did not treat each other with respect.

According to a later, mediaeval tradition, the plague of disease miraculously ceased on Lag B’Omer, the thirty-third day of the Omer and this interruption allowed the Jewish people to celebrate marriages, have their hair cut and rejoice.· There were other anniversaries attached to the date: it was said that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the legendary author of the Zohar, died on this day.· Many pious Jews, to this day, make the pilgrimage to his grave at Meron in the Galilee, following in the footsteps of the kabbalists for whom the forty-nine days were seen as a spiritual journey to Sinai through each of the divine sefirot – the attributes of God.

The celebration at the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is known as the Hillulah of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (the celebration or ‘wedding’). Bonfires are lit, three year old boys have their first haircut and children are sent off into the woods to shoot bows and arrows.

But all these connections between Lag B’Omer, the lifting of mourning restrictions, the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the bows and arrows – which may or may not be symbolic of the rainbow, said to herald the coming of redemption – are tenuous.

Liberal Judaism does not observe the prohibition against conducting marriages between Pesach and Shavuot and it regards Lag B’Omer as a minor folk festival that acquired its various observances and significance late in our history.

What remains important for us, however, is this period of the Counting of the Omer. Between Pesach and Shavuot, our tradition encourages us to see these seven weeks as a spiritual, inner journey.· How do we move from seeing ourselves as slaves who have come out of the narrow restrictions of slavery in Egypt towards an understanding of slavery and revelation?

What does slavery and revelation means for us today?· What are the constraints that exert control over us, that curb our inner hunger for freedom to be ourselves?· Where do we define our own boundaries and limitations?· What ties us down and prevents us from making the choices we know might make us happier, more free, more in tune with our own being?

It is said that there is a form of mindfulness meditation that can slow one’s heart rate and allow one to be more attentive, to concentrate more and to be more focused – not on the action and vitality of one’s working life – but on the inner life of oneself.· This period of counting seven weeks, forty-nine days each evening with a blessing and the simple formula that marks a new step towards Sinai is a process of mindfulness that takes us from half-envisioned realities to a sharper, deeper experience of moral and spiritual meanings.

[1] In Exodus 23:16 the festival is called·Chag Ha-Katzir – ‘the Feast of the Harvest, of the first fruits of your work’, while in Deuteronomy 16:10, the festival is known as·Chag Shavuot – the Festival of Weeks.