(photo credit: Courtesy)
Lag Ba’omer is hard for us Israelis who don’t eat meat. Summer in Australia has the same effect. Israelis and Australians share a love of meat burnt on barbecues, except that no-one is sure where the English “barbecue” or the Hebrew “mangal” originated. Possibly “barbecue” is from Spanish and “mangal” is from Turkish. There is even a crazy theory that “mangal” fuses English and Italian initials, “meat and gravy al fresco.”
The Lag Ba’omer barbecue is one of the mysteries of the day. There is a sheaf of Lag Ba’omer mysteries. We’re not certain when it arose. We’re unsure of the real reason behind it. It comes in a period of semi-mourning that people reckon differently. It has few prayer customs. It centers neither on the home or synagogue, but on the outdoors. Some places have Lag Ba’omer parades, some play at archery; Israelis burn meat.
The archery presumably recalls the fact that even youngsters enlisted in Bar-Kochba’s army. Maybe children pretended to be going off to play sport while really making their way to school to study Torah? The barbecues? Maybe also a ploy, or maybe linked with the Roman interference with the Jewish practice of signal fires to mark a new month?
That’s not the end of the mysteries. No one is certain why we have in Lag Ba’omer a happy break in the dismal mood of the Omer, nor why the next day we go back to the semi-mourning. The popular theory links it with a plague (a choking disease according to the Talmud) that befell Rabbi Akiva’s students who were supporters of Bar-Kochba. Their suffering and deaths were a blow to Torah study and to national defense. The plague lifted on the 33rd day of the Omer, Lag Ba’omer, which gave the day a good feeling.
However, why should the plague be marked by no weddings or celebrations, with the ban resumed after Lag Ba’omer? As the mourning period is so widely observed, it is clear that the whole of Jewry found meaning in it, but the special status of Lag Ba’omer – 18 Iyyar – remains a problem, as is the continuation of the mourning the following day.
Josephus may have an answer. In his Jewish Wars (II:16-17) he states that the first rising against Rome began on 17 Iyyar, 66 CE, and the news became known the next day, the 18th of the month, which was regarded as the anniversary of the uprising. The nation was happy and proud that day, but the uprising failed and the persecution continued. Presumably the date was not referred to as Uprising Day or by any similar vernacular name in order to prevent reprisals, but when Jews spoke of it as Lag Ba’omer, it made sense and remained meaningful and inspiring.
Jewish history has so many sad anniversaries that it would be churlish (and impossible) to expect any one to give up their mangalim. The writer is an emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Sydney, Australia.
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