Visitors to Israel these days would be surprised to see many bonfires lit across the country. This is the time of Lag BaOmer ! This short blog post explains what it is all about with the events and locations related to it.
First and foremost. Lag BaOmer means the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, a divine commandment required from the Hebrews the day after they left Egypt and their status of slavery. In short, the Hebrews were asked by God to count the days until they passed from the status of slaves to the status of people, when they received their "law book", the Torah. This commandment is given in Leviticus 23:15-16
There are 49 days in the Omer (because it is 7 weeks, as detailed in the Biblical text), so 49 days passed from the day after the Exodus until the day of the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai (an event so-called Matan Torah in Hebrew). This counting is like any "count down" towards a planned important event. Except that, for the Omer, we don't count "down" but we count "up", as 1st day, 2nd day,... 33rd day,... until 49th day. And at the end of the Omer, on the 50th day, is the holy day of Shavuot, one of the three major Jewish festivals of the year (with Pesach and Sukkot). The 33rd day within the 7 weeks period also corresponds to the 5th day of the 5th week of the Omer period: the numbers 5 and 7 have spiritual importance in the Kabbalah. And, because the Omer starts and ends on fixed days of the Hebrew calendar, Lag BaOmer also falls on a same day every year, on the 18th day of the month of Iyyar of the Hebrew Calendar.
Sadly, during the Roman persecutions of the 2nd century CE, this period of the Omer became a period of mourning because, according to the Talmud in Yebamot 62b, all the disciples of Rabbi Akiva died of an epidemic during this 33-days period, except for a handful of them. So, the Land of Israel became desolate from Torah knowledge until Rabbi Akiva inspired these last remaining students before he was himself executed by the Romans following the revolt of Bar-Kochba around 130-133 CE. These last students became the ones who revived the declining faith within the Jewish nation. One of these students was Shimon bar Yohai (so-called the Rashbi), who hid away in a cave of Peki'in with his son Elazar for several years, after Emperor Hadrian condemned him to death. But after Hadrian died, his anti-Judaism decrees were cancelled. To read more about it, click here.
Now, coming back to Lag BaOmer, why is the 33rd day a different day? It is the day when Shimon bar Yohai died. Should Jews be sad or joyful? When he died, he asked that this day be marked with joy. Probably because he also taught to his disciples the secrets of the Torah, and from there a new mystical oral tradition started. His last teaching was later inscribed in a book called the Zohar, which forms the basis of the Kabbalah which was set by Isaac Luria (so-called the Ari) in Safed in the Land of Israel in the 16th century. So, the death of Shimon bar Yohai sparked the revival of Judaism when it was at the point of being erased from humanity, at the times of the Romans. This is why the death of bar Yohai is in fact marked as a day of joy and not of mourning. To read more about the death of bar Yohai, click here.
The celebrations are numerous, especially for the religious people. First and foremost, they do a pilgrimage to his tomb in Meiron, Upper Galilee: it is called a hillula, meaning the anniversary of the deceased person.
It is a tradition to make the day of Lag BaOmer very joyful, and not mournful, so outdoor parties and bonfires are in the agenda everywhere in Israel. They symbolize the light that bar Yochai brought to the knowledge of the Torah. With its bonfires, Lag BaOmer brings children together in a moment of joy. And families follow suit. In short, Lag BaOmer has the power to bring all the nation together in outdoor celebrations. It is a moment of "unity" and we can say that the entire Land of Israel becomes the "synagogue" which means "assembly" in Greek, similarly to the words Beit Knesset which means synagogue in Hebrew (or the Knesset which is the national assembly in Israel) or Ecclesia in Latin which also means assembly (church in English).
Also, on Lag BaOmer, religious families cut the hair of their three years old sons for the first time since their birth (this explains why very young religious children have long hair until they get their first cut on that day). Lag BaOmer also marks the opening season of weddings because no celebration is permitted between Pesach and Lag BaOmer.
In modern-day Israel, Lag BaOmer has also taken a new turn. From being a celebration for the revival of the Jewish faith, it also became a celebration for the revival of Jewish nation. And therefore, some national institutions have symbolically been created on that day: the Palmach in 1941, and the Israel Defence Forces (the IDF or Tzahal) in 1948. Remember that the State of Israel was also declared on the 6th day of the month of Iyyar 1948, so 12 days before the creation of the IDF (and one may note that 12 = 5 + 7).
So, what is the best way for you, as a tourist, to delve into the Lag BaOmer party spirit? Get yourself invited by an Israeli friend to join a picnic or BBQ around a bonfire. You would normally join such group a couple of hours before sunset, so you can enjoy the sunset and the bonfire still lighting the starting night.
If you wish to arrange some visit, it is not a good day to visit Safed and Meiron because of thousands of religious people heading to the same place. But any day before and after should be okay. And don't forget the cave in Peki'in too: both sites are in Upper Galilee, not far one from the other.
Enjoy the bonfire, the party, the drinks, and the food.
Certified Tour Guide, Israel
May 2017, Iyyar 5777
Update: May 2023