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Omer Lag, and Lag B'omer

05/07/2020 03:39:07 PM


We are a more than halfway from Passover to Shavuot! Four weeks ago, we were dining on Matzah, and three weeks from now, we’ll be up late studying (probably via Zoom) and eating cheesecake (hopefully not via zoom) to celebrate receiving the Torah. Our Torah portion, Emor, describes these seven weeks as a time of watchful counting, building excitement and bringing offerings of gratitude as the harvest got underway. However, in later times, the Omer became known as a mournful period - people avoided shaving, musical performances, and joyful events like weddings. 

Why is the Omer a mournful time? Shouldn’t we be excited to look forward to the giving of the Torah? One explanation for this practice is found in the Talmud, tractate Yevamot - Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 students who perished in a plague because “they did not respect each other.” The mournful practices of the Omer would then commemorate these students. We can certainly relate to the feeling of hoping for a plague to lift, as well as the tragedies that result when people do not respect each other. Some modern scholars think that the “plague” was really a euphemism for the death of these students in an uprising against Rome from 132-135. Rabbi Akiva himself was martyred during this uprising. 

However, the mournful practices of the Omer cease on its 33rd day, called “Lag B’omer,” which is observed this coming Monday night and Tuesday. Some explain that it was because the plague stopped on this date, or that it was the date of a victory, albeit temporary, in the war against Rome. The mystics suggest that Lag B’omer is the 5th day of the 5th week of the Omer, which represents a particularly strong type of spiritual majesty. They also observe this date as the Yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, to whom many important mystical texts are attributed.

In most years, Lag B’omer is observed with picnics and outdoor activities, perhaps remembering the fleeting victories during the revolt against Rome. It is also often marked by bonfires, perhaps commemorating Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who legend says, could turn night into day like a bonfire. It is a popular day for haircuts, weddings, and other types of celebrations that had been suspended until this point.

At Passover, I had hoped that Lag B’omer would mark the end of our modern plague just as it did the plague of Rabbi Akiva’s students, and would be marked with haircut and some weddings in the coming week. I had also hoped that Shavuot might mark our return to the sanctuary. Unfortunately, our time of watchful waiting continues. It is likely that my haircut will be self-administered, and weddings have already been either postponed or reduced to bride, groom and zoom, and our return to in-person gatherings for prayer is being prepared for, but cannot be scheduled. While one can always hope for miracles, one cannot rely on them.

Still, I do have some hope for Shavuot. The Torah tells us that the Torah was given in the desert - in an isolated place. As we look ahead to remember receiving the Torah, we may be experiencing physical isolation, but the Torah will find us wherever we are. In addition to great children’s and culinary programs, our congregation will be involved in two study programs for the holiday, one city-wide, and one nation-wide, with more details about both available early next week. We will come together with friends and teachers across the community and the country.

Sat, September 30 2023 15 Tishrei 5784