Off the Beaten Track: Lag Ba'omer celebrations

Lag Ba'omer can be a confusing holiday to Jews and gentiles who visit Israel during this time.

Mt. Meron in the Galilee (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Mt. Meron in the Galilee
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Joe Yudin owns Touring Israel, a company that specializes in “Lifestyle” tours of Israel.
A walk through any neighborhood will see children piling high stacks of wood scavenged from vacant lots, building sites and unfortunately even healthy trees. A walk through an ultra-orthodox neighborhood will see hundreds or even thousands of these bonfires being readied for the night’s activities. Children will then run around the neighborhoods chasing each other with toy bows and arrows either bought at the store or made from scratch, some simple, some elaborate. It is a very strange holiday indeed looking at it from the outside. So what exactly are these people celebrating and where can a tourist best observe it?
Before we delve into specific sites we need to understand what Lag Ba'omer is. It all starts, like almost everything else, with a line in the Torah (Leviticus 23:15) with God commanding the nation of Israel to count the days between the festival of physical freedom, Passover, and the festival of the harvest, Shavuot, and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.  Lag Ba'omer is the exact calendar midpoint between the Jewish celebration of our freedom from slavery and the celebration of our spiritual freedom through the Torah, as well as the midpoint between the traditional barley and wheat harvests.
These harvest celebrations in the Land of Israel probably predate the Israelite conquest; and early civilizations were known for periods of spiritual contemplation and sacrifice unto their deities hoping to inspire a good harvest. The period of the “counting of the Omer” has similar qualities: weddings are forbidden, cutting hair is forbidden and celebrations in general are frowned upon.
In Jewish lore this period of semi mourning between festivals, is due to the story of a great famine that swept over the land during the Bar Kochba Revolt against Rome in the second century CE, killing 24,000 of the great Rabbi Akiva’s students. However at the midpoint of the Omer, Lag Ba'omer, the plague was lifted and his students celebrated. This respite from the plague was short lived and in the end only five of Akiva’s disciples survived, including Rabbi Shimon bar Yochi, father of Kabbalah, who is buried on Mt. Meron in the Galilee. Akiva was the spiritual leader of the Bar Kochba Revolt and it is quite possible that the “plague” is a veiled reference to the slaughter of Jewish troops by Hadrian’s legions. The Talmud blames the death of thousands on the lack of respect between Akiva’s students which is similar to the Talmudic reason of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem: senseless hatred between Jews.
In the Zionist ideology of the State of Israel, Lag Ba'omer symbolizes the Jewish people’s struggle against the Romans.  Even after the disastrous Jewish War of the first century CE in Judea and the War of Quietus of the early second century, the Jews continued to fight the Romans leading to the Bar Kochba Revolt. Bar Kochba and his men were known to fight out of a network of underground caves carved out of the soft limestone and chalk rock in the Judean Hills. Tradition holds that after a particularly long siege the rebels came out of their holes in the ground on Lag Ba'omer and lit bonfires to let each other know that they were still alive and fighting the pagan oppression.  The Palmach was created on Lag Ba’omer in 1941, a special “Strike Force” of the Hagannah that would later become the core of the Israel Defense Forces.
There are two ways to experience Lag Ba'omer other than joining a neighborhood bonfire. You can either make the trek up to Mt. Meron in the Galilee to watch as tens of thousands of religious Jews celebrate around the tomb of Shimon bar Yochai, cutting their three-year-old children’s hair, lighting massive bonfires and singing and dancing until dawn; or head south to some of the battle sites and hiding places of Bar Kochba’s rebel soldiers. The most accessible place to explore Bar Kochba caves without too much of a chance of getting lost is at the Horvat Midras site in the Adulam National Park near Beit Shemesh.
Take route 38 south passing Tel Azekah Junction and then Elah Junction. After about three km you will see a sign to ‘Horvat Midras’ to the left. Turn off the main road and follow the signs. After about two km you will come to a parking lot. Follow the signs on foot up the dirt road until you see a large fig tree growing out of a mouth of a cave. You are about to start your crawl through caves used by Bar Kochba’s men to fight Hadrian’s eight Roman legions. Make sure you have flashlights. The crawl is well signed, take your time and make sure not to miss any turns. You will exit near the entrance point about 15-20 minutes later.
During the early Second Temple Period a Jewish village stood here near an important road that connected Gaza, Ashkelon, Beit Guvrin and Jerusalem. The villagers quarried the soft rock out of the earth, shaping them into ‘bell caves.’ The houses were built over the caves and the caves were used to raise pigeons for their meat, eggs and fertilizer, water cisterns, ritual baths (mikvehs), factories to produce olive oil and burial caves. The village had become a city by the first century BCE and flourished until the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132-135 CE. In 132 CE Hadrian banned the ordination of rabbis, circumcision and the study of Torah. To add insult to injury, he apparently intended to erect a pagan temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This led to the third Jewish revolt from Rome in 65 years and led to the killing of 580,000 Jews and the destruction of over 1,000 Jewish towns and villages, ending in the banishment of Jews from Jerusalem.
After your crawl through the caves check out some other ruins in the area all throughout the Adulam Caves National Park such as the Byzantine church not far away, Tel Atari and others.
Joe Yudin became a licensed tour guide in 1999. He completed his Master’s degree at the University of Haifa in the Land  of Israel Studies and is currently studying toward a PhD.