Lag Ba'omer

The holiday of Lag Ba'omer, which will be celebrated this week, is surely one of Israel's most popular folk festivals.

bonfire 88 (photo credit: )
bonfire 88
(photo credit: )
The holiday of Lag Ba'omer, which will be celebrated this week, is surely one of Israel's most popular folk festivals. For the general population, it is a wonderful opportunity to light bonfires, roast potatoes and sit and sing. For hassidim and others, it is a time of celebration at Meron, commemorating the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, whom they consider to have been the author of the Zohar. Rabbinic tradition marks it as the day when a plague that decimated the pupils of Rabbi Akiva ceased, thereby interrupting the mourning period of sefira. Historically much of this is suspect, and the real origins of the day and of the practice of mourning during sefira remain obscure. Although we should always be careful to differentiate fiction from fact, none of that will or should interfere with the popular celebrations that are held on Lag Ba'omer. Origins are one thing; significance is quite another. Since Lag Ba'omer has become so intimately connected with the life of Shimon bar Yohai a few words about him are in order. A pupil of Rabbi Akiva, he lived in the second century and helped guide the people through the terrible time following the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt. Bar Yohai himself was known as a fierce opponent of the Romans and of anything Roman. He despised Roman civilization and rightly considered it a cruel nation that oppressed the Jews. He did little or nothing to conceal his feelings. In this he followed the ways of his master, Rabbi Akiva. It did, however, cause him no little trouble and eventually he was sentenced to death. He was an extremist in many things, including his attitude toward Torah study as opposed to working for a living. He pondered the verses: "This book of the Torah shall not depart out of your mouth" (Joshua 1:8) and "You shall gather in your corn" (Deuteronomy 11:14) and wondered how it was possible to gather corn if you were studying Torah all the time. His answer was that if they studied all the time, "others would do their work for them." Rabbi Ishmael expressed the opposite opinion. He taught that the injunction of study day and night is not to be taken literally, but rather "you are to combine study with a worldly occupation" (Berachot 35b). This idea is illustrated in the following story. In order to save himself from the Romans, Bar Yohai and his son hid in a cave for 12 years where they were miraculously kept alive. A carob tree and a well of water supplied all their needs. They did not have to work, but were able to simply sit and study all the time. The legend relates that when they were informed by Elijah that the danger from the Romans had passed, they emerged from the cave and saw ordinary people occupying themselves with plowing and sowing. They condemned them for "forsaking life eternal for this life." Their glance caused people to be consumed by flame, whereupon a heavenly voice ordered them back into the cave saying, "You are destroying my world!" After a year they were allowed to re-emerge. They then saw ordinary working people meticulously preparing for Shabbat and realized "how precious the mitzvot are to Israel." They had learned the lesson that those who work and cannot devote all their time to study can still be observant. They were reconciled to the world (Shabbat 33b). This extraordinary story is obviously meant to chastise Bar Yohai for his extremist views. If ordinary labor is despised and only isolation from the world, day-and-night study, is prized, certainly God's world would be destroyed. Civilization could no longer exist. What Bar Yohai learned was that people who work and live normal lives can also honor and love the Torah and commandments and that the combination of Torah and a worldly life is the only way in which the world can be sustained. As the later sage Abaye remarked, "Many have followed Ishmael's advice and it has gone well with them. Others have followed Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and it has not gone well with them" (Berachot 35b). The practical implications of this for Jewish life are so obvious as to require no elaborate explication. The implications for Israel and Zionism are even more important. A modern state cannot exist depending on "others" to do the work. All too often those others are Jews, and there is something inherently wrong in some Jews saying that they are not required to do whatever is needed for a country to exist but that others should do it for them. This "Shabbos goy" or rather "Shabbos Jew" mentality is not acceptable. Jewish life through the ages was sustained by the combination of study and work. To divide society into two groups - those who study and do not work and those who work but do not study - is to distort Judaism. Ishmael's advice is wise: Combine study with a worldly occupation. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court (Beit Din) of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel and a former President of the International Rabbinical Assembly.