The children in Jerusalem are already anticipating it. You daren’t leave a piece of wood lying around, or it will be grabbed to add to the stockpile of logs, boughs, timber and old fence palings that have suddenly become treasure. They are being hoarded for bonfires that will burn all night in vacant lots, forests and pocket parks all over Israel on Lag Ba’omer, which this year falls on May 19.
From the second day of Passover, the next 49 days, culminating in Shavuot, are known as the Omer period. In Leviticus 23:15, we are commanded to count the 49 days that pass between the two festivals. This counting is known as sefirat ha’omer.
We count each of the 49 days with a real measure of exactness, every evening at the end of the Maariv service. “Today is the first day of the Omer” is the formula, which expands into weeks and days. An Omer calendar makes it easier to remember. The seven-week countdown is comparable to elevation from slavery to the spiritual height of receiving the Torah at Sinai.
The 33rd day has a special significance. Until then, it is not permitted to get a haircut, wear new clothes, attend public entertainment or get married. On Lag Ba’omer, these restrictions are relaxed. The children often call it “Bonfire night,” but it is also known as “Scholars’ Day” because of a legend that a terrible epidemic occurred claiming the lives of thousands of young men, students of the great teacher Rabbi Akiva. On Lag Ba’omer the epidemic suddenly stopped.
Counting the Omer links us to the words of the Psalms: “Number your days so that you may acquire a heart of wisdom.”
On Lag Ba’omer we celebrate our steadfast hold to the Torah through the ages, and also honor the lives of great Jewish heroes of the Temple period, such as Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Bar-Kochba.
Much as Lag Ba’omer is a popular Israeli holiday, we cannot forget that last year, when it fell on April 30, it was marked by a great tragedy. The enormous crowd of 100,000 that visited Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s tomb in Meron resulted in a crush of men and boys with shocking results – 45 were killed and 150 injured.
We can only hope that lessons were learned and that organizers will take all steps necessary to prevent a recurrence of this heartbreaking event.
The writer is the author of 14 books; her latest novel is Searching for Sarah. [email protected]