Lag Baomer - the 33rd day of the 7 weeks observant Jews count between Passover and Shavuot - is a total mystery to me. The celebrations, what seems to border on pagan ritual at rabbis' graves - all of it...very odd. Can you provide clarity / insight / rationale?
«Lag Ba'Omer (Iyar 18--The 33rd day of the Omer)
Thirty-third day of Omer counting, as indicated by the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew letters lamed (30) and gimmel (3), hence the word lag. . Lag Ba'Omer takes place during the Sefirah. During this day there was a break in the Hadrianic persecution. Weddings and joyful occasions are permitted.
Lag Ba'Omer is considered a joyous day on which the semi-mourning observed during the seven-week Omer period is suspended. It is commemorated as the day of the cessation of the plague in which 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiba were said to have died during the Bar Kokhba revolt (TB. Yev. 62b). It also marks the yahrzeit of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai. Lag ba-Omer has been traditionally celebrated with the lighting of bonfires on the eve and during the day, and with hiking excursions in the countryside. Sporting events and games with bows and arrows are held, as a symbolic remembrance of the Bar Kokhba revolt and the physical prowess and courage required of his soldiers. In Israel, it is customary to light bonfires at the tombs of Simeon bar Yohai and his son Eliezer at Meron, near Safed, and at the tomb of Simeon the Just in Jerusalem. Throngs congregate to sing and dance, and to honor the memories of Simeon bar Yohai and Rabbi Akiba, who were among the main rabbinic supporters of anti-Roman resistance
==> In hasidic circles, three-year-old boys are traditionally given their first haircut at these festivals. <== Older Torah students and adults celebrate the day as the "Scholars' Holiday". Lag ba-Omer is also a traditional day for wedding ceremonies to be held because of the general halakhic injunction against weddings during the period of the Omer counting.»
Full Disclosure I myself am a Misnaged/Mithnaged an Opponent of Hassidism As such I belong to a group that either opposes Mysticism/Kabbalah entirely, or at least any public manifestations thereof. *(See below)
Even granting solid Kabbalistic reasons, the public nature of "Odd Customs" leaves onlookers with a negative impression of Jewish Ritual
The reality is that since they have gone public, the best antidote is education and information. Since I'm not well-versed in Kabbalistic Ritual I solicited help from some colleagues
The aish.com site has other articles in the same vein.
For me the bottom line is that Kabbalah and Esoteric Judaism ought to be private. But once it has gone public we need to seek the best possible rationales we can in order to understand what's going on.
As far as practicing these for oneself, it's a matter of taste. As far as Jewish Halachah goes these are optional; and so if they enhance one's connection to the Eternal then go for it! If they turn you off, shun it.
So while I DEIGN not to practice some these ritualls myself, I try not to DISDAIN those who do! <Smile>
*Some people were a little startled when reading the fourth paragraph so here is some background I count myself as a Yecke, and while 19th century German gedolim had widely divergent attitudes regarding Kabbalah, ranging from those who dismissed or abstained alltogeher from engaging in kabbalah, to those who were themselves great kabbalists. However, there was an almost unanimous agreement that mystical teachings and practices were not for public consumption and should not be incorporated as popular practices.
Lag BaOmer is probably one of the least celebrated holidays outside Israel. According the Talmud and Midrash it marks the anniversary of the death of 24,000 students of rabbi Akiva who all died in a plague that was brought upon them on account for their neglect to show each other proper respect and jeaulosy of each other’s intellectual achievements and spiritual levels. It became also known as the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai one of the last students of Rabbi Akiva after this plague. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai became known as one of the greatest torah scholars of his generation and he has been attributed (although incorrectly) with the authorship of the Zohar. According to some on the day of his death he revealed the deepest secrets and most mystical teachings and so Lag BaOmer has come to parallel Shavuot (with the giving of the Torah) as the giving of the “hidden” Torah, the Kabbalah.
During the Middle Ages Lag BaOmer was a welcome day-off studying for scholars and celebrated by students of Torah with all kinds of festivities that could get a bit out of hand at times. Another tradition (although more recent) connects the date with the Bar Kokhba revolt against Roman occupation in (132-135 C.E.) Especially in Israel the night of Lag Baomer is celebrated with huge bonfires symbolizing the fires that were supposedly lit on mountain top to transmit messages between the rebels in their fight against the Romans. The holiday is a very popular especially for Israeli teenagers who’ll spent weeks leading up to the holiday creating stashes of firewood.
The assumed resting place of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Rabbi Elazar is in Meron in Israel and till this day hundreds of thousands of people gather there with bonfires, songs, dancing and barbeques. It is said that just as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai brought the light of kabbalah to the world and to reflect this light fires are kindled.
There are multiple rituals connected with it, many of them originate in ashkenazi hasidic communities, such as "upsheren" (cutting the hair of 3-year old children for the first time), getting married etc.
The Talmud teaches that after a plague took the lives of thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students, it ended on the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer.A yearly celebration was established to celebrate the end of the plague. Rabbi Akiva then taught Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.He was purported to be the greatest teacher of his generation.He is also held as the author of the Zohar, the most important text of the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism.) His death is commemorated on Lag B’Omer tying it to his teacher and the seminary he attended.
With this history, it makes sense that an “almost pagan” celebration would develop.The bon fires of Israel and the drunken parties of the Chassids show the Jewish desire to celebrate with heart, soul, and body when we can commemorate the end of great tragedy combined with the joy of learning.
Pagan like practices exist throughout Jewish ritual practice and celebrations.They were a part of our history in early Israelite practices and often worked their way into more modern practices as they are ritually and spiritually connective.Drunken dancing at Simchat Torah, masked parties at Purim, and kissing Torah scrolls as they are marched around the sanctuary on Shabbat create visceral connections for Jews often experiencing Judaism with their heads as if disembodied. For many Judaism is all about words and asking questions.
In some Reform congregations, the celebrations of Shabbat are shifting to include more freeform dancing to drumming prayers.A little more “pagan’ might not be so bad!
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