It’s a cool spring night. Friends gather around a large campfire. There are s’mores, laughs, guitars, and drums. Kids chase one another and squeal.
Meanwhile (ignoring the time zone shift), hundreds of thousands of Jewish people converge in a town on a hilltop in Upper Galilee. Pilgrims stand shoulder to shoulder in courtyards and on rooftops. Prominent rabbis lead the crowd in evening prayers over a public address system. Then, huge fires are lit all around, and a live band starts blasting music with a heavy beat. The crowd pulsates with dancing and shouts.
The name of the occasion is Lag Ba’Omer, although Lag is not really a Hebrew word. It is made of two Hebrew letters, lamed and gimel, which stand for the number 33. Ba’Omer means “of the Omer,” referring to the period of counting days between Passover and Shavu’ot. (See Leviticus 23:15-16.)
Mourning and Joy in the Omer
This period should be marked by joy and anticipation in preparation for Shavu’ot, the celebration of the giving of the Torah. But instead, the Jewish community observes certain mourning customs at this time of the year due to a historical tragedy.
Rabbi Akiva, one of the most prominent sages of the early second century, had amassed 24,000 disciples. However, the Talmud reports that all of them died horrific deaths of diphtheria during the time of the Counting of the Omer.
Even so, the Jewish community today makes an exception to this mourning observance on Lag Ba’Omer. What makes the thirty-third day special? While there are standard answers now, the history is unclear. There is no evidence that anyone treated the day with significance prior to the Middle Ages.
The oldest recorded explanations say that the mourning customs are suspended on that day because it was then that Rabbi Akiva’s disciples stopped dying. Later commentaries connect the day with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon was one of the new disciples whom Rabbi Akiva raised up after the plague was over.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai
Rabbi Shimon was a larger-than-life character. The Talmud reports that as an outspoken critic of the Roman government, Rabbi Shimon and his son Elazar were forced to hide in a cave for twelve years. During their isolation, they studied Torah all day long, until the Prophet Elijah appeared and informed them that it was safe to leave.
Shimon and Elazar were so spiritually charged by their forced asceticism that they lost all connection to the mundane world. Shimon and Elazar came out of their cave and saw people engaging in the normal activities of plowing and planting. They became so enraged by this that a glance from their eyes set objects on fire. God punished them by sending them back to the cave for another twelve months. Once he was rehabilitated and returned to society, Rabbi Shimon was a sage of remarkable wisdom and ability.
Lag Ba’Omer is called the day of Rabbi Shimon’s “joy,” which could mean the day he was ordained, the day he emerged from hiding, or the day of his death.
Today, most people connect Lag Ba’Omer with Rabbi Shimon’s death, which is an unusual excuse for a party. In Jewish culture, the anniversary of a person’s death (yahrzeit) is typically a solemn observance.
In the thirteenth century, a writer named Moses de Leon published a major mystical text known as the Zohar, which purports to contain the teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. From a historical perspective, it is a stretch to ascribe literal authorship to Rabbi Shimon. On the other hand, it is also unlikely that Moses de Leon invented it all himself. It is possible that at least a kernel of its teachings originates from ancient times. Regardless, most of the traditional Jewish community holds the text to be authentic.
The Zohar describes the day of Rabbi Shimon’s death as a joyous day, although it does not say what day it was. He had lived a long life and was surrounded by students and companions. Holy fire enveloped the crowded house. From his deathbed, Rabbi Shimon delivered a lengthy discourse revealing mystical concepts he had saved for that moment. After he died, they placed him in a casket, which rose in the air. Then a heavenly voice declared, “Gather for the wedding celebration of Rabbi Shimon!” The casket floated on its own to a cave in the Galilean town of Meron.
More than anything else, Lag Ba’Omer today represents Rabbi Shimon and the mystical tradition of Judaism in his name. The large fires symbolize the light of the Torah—and especially the mystical interpretation of it. Dancing and music celebrate the fact that the Torah and Jewish continuity have endured and outlived the Romans and all other forces of persecution.
Messianic Jews and Lag Ba’Omer
Many Messianic Jews do not readily connect with Lag Ba’Omer for several reasons, and I respect that position. It is easier for us to connect to observances with a biblical origin. Rabbi Akiva reminds us of the painful story of Bar Kochba, his failed messiah candidate, and how the revolt marginalized followers of Yeshua. Rabbi Shimon is spoken of in lofty terms that may impinge on our loyalty to Yeshua. The Zohar’s mysticism is hard for us to understand and accept. And while any massive loss of life is a reason to mourn, this season for us is marked by the appearances of our Master after the resurrection, a cause for great joy.
On the other hand, Messianic pioneer Chaim Yedidiah Pollak waxed nostalgic on his childhood celebration of Lag Ba’Omer and even suggested that Rabbi Shimon could have been a follower of Yeshua. A case could be made that Messianic Judaism should reclaim this minor holiday, but I will leave that for another time.
Whether or not you observe Lag Ba’Omer, may the light of the Torah burn in your heart like a blazing torch as we count the days leading to Sinai.