The Transformation of Lag B'Omer

The founding of the State of Israel in modern times has reshaped our understanding of many of the holidays of the Hebrew calendar. Hanukkah, a minor holiday in rabbinic Judaism that celebrated the miracle of the one cruse of oil that lasted eight days, has become a celebration of Judah Maccabee’s military heroism and his founding of a sovereign Jewish State. Tu B’Shvat, originally a minor holiday associated with the agricultural cycle related to Temple sacrifice and tithing, has attained significance in modern Israel as an Arbor Day, celebrating the pioneers who made Eretz Yisrael flourish. Finally, the upcoming holiday of Lag B’Omer had little to do with the Bar Kokhba rebellion of 132-35 CE, but Israelis today celebrate what was once a minor holiday in the Hebrew calendar as a great celebration of the last sovereign Jewish State in Israel before 1948.

If Lag B’Omer was not a holiday celebrating rebellion against Rome, what was it? Originally, according to Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg in his The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays, the counting of the Omer between Passover and Shavuot as a “happy time” in the Biblical period. It was a time of anticipation, the period from the Exodus leading up to God’s giving of the Torah at Sinai. While tied to the agricultural cycle and the Temple in ancient Israel, later in the rabbinic period the counting of the Omer up to the thirty-third day—Lag B’Omer—was a time of sadness and mourning. A plague had decimated the students of Rabbi Akiva during this time. Akiva was the greatest legal mind and mystic of his time in the land of Israel and a supporter of the Bar Kokhba rebellion. Rabbi Greenberg states that “It is entirely possible that the plague was, in fact, a Roman purge of Akiva’s students for the crime of being involved in the Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome.” We have no clear answer. We do know that the Omer period became a time of mourning in Jewish tradition. Whether Lag B’Omer is related to the ancient revolt against Rome is open to question.

Another tradition associated with Lag B’Omer is the commemoration of the anniversary of the death of ancient Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai. Today, Israelis celebrate the yahrzeit by visiting this rabbi’s grave in Miron in the Galilee. It is a time of great celebration. While Simeon Bar Yochai likely did not write the greatest work of Jewish mysticism—the Zohar—Chasidic and Sephardic groups make the pilgrimage to his grave to honor the ancient mystic.

With the founding of the State of Israel, it is fascinating how Simeon Bar Kokhba has become the epitome of heroism. Rabbinic views of Bar Kokhba are critical of this military leader as arrogant and a failed messiah who misled his people and was the source of great suffering. This negative assessment of Bar Kokhba endured for 1800 years. While messianic activism has many dangers and Bar Kokhba should be a reminder of that, the Zionist movement has actually done history a great service by rehabilitating this military leader. Indeed, while his revolt was eventually crushed, it was a success for two years and caused the Roman Empire’s best legions great loss and suffering. Bonfires and field days are the perfect antidote to a malignant understanding of this rebellion solely as a failed messianic adventure that was doomed from the start.

What we learn from this discussion is that the Hebrew calendar is not as rigid as we think. In fact, it is fluid. As the Jewish people faces new challenges and faces epoch-transforming events such as the Shoah and the founding of the State of Israel, the time has come to address the issues of our own day. liturgically and ritually. We should reinterpret the importance of minor holidays and elevate them. The transformation of Lag B’Omer is just one example of how this can be done.