Sunday, May 18, 2014

Rabbi Akiva, Bar Kokhba, And The Zohar = Party Time!


I remember when my wife and I were planning our wedding that one of the first things that the Rabbi checked was if the date we wanted fell within the counting of the Omer. It just added another consideration to the date selection. Fortunately, our preferred date was one that fell just beyond the Omer so we were able to proceed without changing a date that just happened to work out for us.

Today we celebrate the day within that period, Lag Ba’Omer, when there is a short respite during this period of mourning and reflection. For those of you unfamiliar with this period on the Jewish calendar, here is a little information (about the holiday, significance, and observance) from the Judaism section of About.com:

Lag Ba'Omer is a minor Jewish holiday that falls between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. "Lag" is a combination of two Hebrew letters: lamed and gimmel. According to Hebrew numerology, lamed stands for the number thirty and gimmel stands for the number three. These two numbers are significant for Lag Ba'Omer because it is celebrated on the 33rd day of Counting the Omer.

The Significance of Lag Ba'Omer

Lag Ba'Omer is a joyous holiday but no one is sure what it celebrates. The Talmud mentions a plague that is thought to have killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva's students during one Omer, and some have suggested that Lag Ba'Omer is celebratory because the plague abated on the 33rd day. Others have suggested that Lag Ba'Omer is connected to Rabbi Akiva's support of Simon Bar Kokhba, a Jewish rebel leader against Rome. The Romans responded to Bar Kokhba's revolt with incredible brutality, but perhaps Lag Ba'Omer was a day when either the Jews won a victory or there was a brief respite from the violence. (Ultimately, Bar Kokbha's rebellion failed.) The military connection is supported by the tradition of taking children to open fields to play with toy bows and arrows on Lag Ba'Omer.

Observing Lag Ba'Omer

Lag Ba'Omer is a time during the Counting of the Omer when people can celebrate. While the Omer is a time of mourning, on Lag Ba'Omer marriages can be performed, children are taken to parks to play, and people often gather for large bonfires. The fires represent the light of the Torah.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar (an important Kabbalistic text), also died on the 33rd day of the Omer. In Israel many people commemorate his death by visiting his grave in the northern town of Meron. The anniversary of his death is a day for celebration because it is believed he revealed the secrets of the Torah to his students before he died.

While this is not one of those clearly defined holidays found on the calendar, it is still an interesting one to consider. The counting of the Omer is a period unto itself during the year and a time when many people step back and take stock of what they have in this life. The days of celebration immediately before and after this block of time are ones that invoke change in the family and in the community. Lag Ba’Omer is a day of celebratory solace when life continues to progress, unions are celebrated, and, in many communities, children take an important step in their life with their first haircut. While it may seem small to some, it is an important day on the calendar and one that should be made to stand out among the other days of the Omer.

So, while the bonfires burn, and the piles of ash continue to grow, remember the joy and the hope that this day represents. Also remember the period in which this holiday falls and embrace the changes that have, are, and will occur on this day. It is an island of joy among a sea of sorrow with faith guiding us to the shore of this remote paradise. Tomorrow the counting of the Omer continues but with the peace and hope of the day still fresh in our minds and hearts. And soon, like all times of mourning, this period will pass, life will continue, and celebrations, large and small, will fill our days.