Lag B’Omer in Tzfat
Bonfires? Barbecues? What goes on for Lag B’Omer?
Today we have counted 33 days of the Omer, the seven week period in between the festivals of Pesach and Shavuot, time for a celebration, right? We’re over a month in to counting the Omer, and we can see Shavuot just a few weeks away, so why not have a giant bonfire to celebrate? Wait…isn’t there something we are meant to be remembering here?
There are two events we remember on Lag B’Omer (Lag, Lamed Gimel in Hebrew adds up to 33). The first is the miracle of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva, around the time of the Second Temple, had 12,000 chevruta’s, pairs of students. The Talmud says that a plague descended on the 24,000 students, becase they did not respect each other. At this time in the Land of Israel, the Romans were cracking down ever harder on the Jews. Respect and friendship between the students was paramount, without it, how could the Jewish people be able to defend themselves against the Romans?
Another interpretation is that the “plague” the Talmud talks about was the fact that the students of Rabbi Akiva were themselves fighting in the war against the Romans, 2,000 years ago, on the cusp of the destruction of the Second Temple. The plague was therefore that many of the students died in battle, because the lacked respect for each other.
Either way, Lag B’Omer is the day that the plague, whether caused by disease or by the bloodthirsty Roman legions who occupied the Land, was over; marking it as a great day of celebration.
The second event that we mark on Lag B’Omer has great significance for anyone who has ever stood on the balcony of Livnot, gazed out into Meron in the distance, and felt a sense of wonder.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva 2,000 years ago, was a key figure in bringing out the inner secrets of Torah and teaching Kabbalah to his students.He re-wrote the Zohar, the ancient mystical Kabbalistic text. This was later re-edited and published by Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (The Ari Z”l) of Tzfat in the 16th Century.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son hid from the Romans in the town of Peki’in, in a cave, where they studied Torah all day and remained buried in the sand, only daring to expose their heads so they could study. The miracle was the carob tree that grew over them and the flowing stream that emerged so they would have food and water. They remained there for many years, studying and uncovering the deepest mystical aspects of the Torah.
The cave is only a day or so hike from Tzfat, and one can sit under the shady canopy of the carob tree and gaze into the cave, right where Rabbi Shimon and his son spent all those years hiding, but never losing hope.
When Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai passed away, a ring of fire emerged around his house. He had passed on the deepest secrets of Torah onto his closest students, and when he finished, his soul was taken back to G-d.
So on Lag B’Omer, we make bonfires all around the country, to remember the sacrifices Rabbi Shimon made for learning and for Torah, and the incredible depth and beauty of it that he passed on.
We also have parties, it’s the day when the period of mourning for Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students is over, and we want to be able to celebrate life again.
Just like Yom Ha’atzmut, we celebrate with barbecues, beer, and being together.
So why not fire up the barbecue, light up a bonfire, and gaze into the past with a sense of wonder?