1. "Lag BaOmer" - The Thirty-Third Day of the Omer Counting
2. Customs of "Hillulat Rashbi"
3. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai - the Man
4. Rabbi Akiva
5. Bonfires on Lag BaOmer
"Lag BaOmer" - The Thirty-Third Day of the Omer Counting
It is customary to be joyful on Lag BaOmer. And though during the Counting of the Omer we observe some of the customs of mourning, on Lag BaOmer an exception is made and it is permissible to sing and to dance. In addition, the heartfelt "Tachanun" supplication for God's compassion is omitted from prayers both on Lag BaOmer and in the afternoon "Mincha" service on the day before Lag BaOmer. Likewise, one is not permitted to fast on this day.
Ashkanazic tradition permits weddings and haircuts on the day of Lag BaOmer, and there are those who are lenient, permitting weddings and haircuts already from nightfall on Lag BaOmer eve. There are differing practices among Ashkanazic Jews concerning how to behave after Lag BaOmer has passed. Some are accustomed to ending all mourning practices on Lag BaOmer, while others continue to observe these customs even afterwards. Only on Lag BaOmer itself do they suspend their mourning customs.
For Sephardic Jews, mourning continues until the thirty-fourth day of the Counting of the Omer and until then weddings and haircuts are forbidden. Only in the case of singing, dancing, and playing musical instruments are they lenient, permitting them on the thirty-third day of the Omer. At nightfall, with the commencement of the thirty-fourth day of the Omer, they return to observing all of the customs of mourning until the following morning. On the morning of the thirty-fourth day of the Omer, all mourning practices are lifted. Moreover, if Lag BaOmer falls on Friday the Sephardic Jews too permit the cutting of hair. There are also, among the Sephardic Jews, some who end their mourning on the thirty-third day of the Omer like the Ashkanazic Jews.
The reason for our joy on Lag BaOmer is that according to an ancient tradition, the students of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying on this day. There are those who claim that in fact the students of Rabbi Akiva continued dying even after Lag BaOmer, but on Lag BaOmer itself Rabbi Akiva began teaching a new group students, among them Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. These students were spared by the plague, and through them the Torah was disseminated among the Jews. Therefore, we are happy on Lag BaOmer. Others say that on Lag BaOmer Rabbi Akiva ordained the five students who were to carry on the tradition of the Torah after him - among them, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Lag BaOmer is also celebrated in honor of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, or "Rashbi," who died on this day.
Customs of "Hillulat Rashbi"
There are those who, on Lag BaOmer, make a practice of travelling to Meron, to the tombs of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Rabbi Elazar. There they make a great celebration, lighting bonfires, dancing, and singing. Among those who participate in this celebration, known as "Hillulat Rashbi," are Torah scholars and exceptionally pious Jews.
All the same, some important authorities were critical of this custom. The fact that such a festival had been established even though no miracle had been performed on this day, and even though the Sages had not established it as a day of celebration disturbed Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the "Hatam Sofer." And while it is true that we neither recite Tachanun nor fast on Lag BaOmer, nowhere does one find a source to support its being made into a festival. Moreover, if the intention is to mark the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, why the celebration? The accepted way of marking the death of a righteous person is by fasting. How then is it that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai's expiration has become occasion for joy and festivity?
Some wished to prevent the journey to Meron on Lag BaOmer for another reason. Because many women travel to Meron to participate in the festivities, and some of them are dressed immodestly, there was concern that the large numbers of people might lead to mingling between men and woman.
Nevertheless, many people celebrate "Hillulat Rashbi" at Meron in the spirit of the Torah, among them Torah giants and exceptionally pious Jews. And though the day of a righteous person's death is generally a day of sorrow, the masters of the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) teach that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai himself desired that Jews rejoice on the day of his passing. Furthermore, in the major classic of Kabbalah, "the Zohar," the day of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai's death is referred to as a "Hillula," a term which generally refers to a wedding celebration. The use of this term may be explained as follows: Attachment to God's divine presence in this world can be likened to the act of betrothal; in the World to Come, to marriage. It follows that death, from the point of view of the World to Come is viewed differently than in this world. In this world death is seen as a very sad occurrence, the expiration of a righteous individual is even more saddening, for the entire community mourns his loss. Yet, up above, it is understood that everything is for the best. To the contrary, only after the departure of the righteous person from the confines of this world can he merit absorbing the full light of the Torah in the World to Come. When righteous masters of the Kabbalah who occupy themselves with the hidden inner light of the soul depart from this world and ascend beyond its physical confines, they are finally able to grasp the true depth of the mysteries which they had struggled with during their lifetime; the gates of inner light and wisdom are opened before them. This, the Sages teach us, is their great reward, that in the World to Come they sit with their crowns on their heads and enjoy the radiance of the God's divine presence. Consequently, the day on which a righteous person dies is like a marriage. The Torah knowledge that he accumulated produces a great light in the heavens, and consequently his students and disciples down below are able to grasp even better those secrets that he revealed. Hence, the practice among students who understand this profound concept to celebrate a Hillula on the day of their Rabbi's passing.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, is unique in that even Jews who are not familiar with the hidden secrets of the Torah celebrate his death. And so, Lag BaOmer has become a day of joy in the spirit of Jewish mysticism, and many make a practice of travelling to Meron for the Sage's Hillula. Among those who make the pilgrimage, the scholars are joyful about the secrets that have been revealed to them thanks to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, his students, and others who followed his example. The rest of the masses who take part in the Hillula, even though they do not understand the secrets of the Torah, are joyful about the fact that the Torah is deeper than the sea, and that there are scholars and righteous individuals who manage to penetrate its great depths. By virtue of these scholars, our dark world becomes much more pleasant. Moreover, the mere acknowledgment that there exist deep secrets beyond the comprehension of the average person demonstrates wisdom and humility, and through this affirmation, the common folk too merit elevation.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai - the Man
The Jewish Sages have traditionally pursued a middle path, taking into consideration the difficulties of our present world. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, though, pursued absolute and ultimate truths. Concerning foreign rule the Sages, in an attempt to prevent confrontations between Jews and the empires which ruled over them, taught that Jews must pray for the peace of the kingdom. Only when there was no other choice, and the kingdom forced the Jews to betray their religion, did they advocate rebellion. Yet when no such decrees existed, they tried to find a way to get along with the kingdom.
The Talmud relates a discussion that took place between three Sages regarding the kingdom of Rome. Rabbi Yehudah ben Ilai began by saying, "How praiseworthy are the actions of this nation; they have built market places, bridges and bath houses." Though Rabbi Yehuda was aware of the fact that the Romans were responsible for placing many harsh decrees upon Israel; though he was aware that they were even responsible for the destruction of the Second Temple and the killing of hundreds of thousands of Jews during the Bar Kochba rebellion, it appears that he preferred to link all of these hardships to extraneous causes. Instead of denouncing the Romans, he chose to emphasize the positive aspects of their regime. Rabbi Yose, upon hearing the words of Rabbi Yehudah, remained silent. Apparently, while he did not agree with the praise expressed by Rabbi Yehuda, he did not feel the need to condemn the Romans and, by so doing, to cause unnecessary irritation. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, though, could not bear hearing praise for such an evil kingdom. He retorted, "Everything they built, they built for themselves: They built market places in order to place prostitutes there; bathhouses, in order to refresh themselves; bridges, in order to collect taxes."
When this discussion became known to the Romans it was decreed: "Rabbi Yehudah, for praising us, shall be promoted; Rabbi Yose, for remaining silent, shall be punished through exile; Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, for speaking out against us, shall be put to death. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai fled and hid in a cave with his son - his wife providing them with food and water. It is important to note that after the fierce rebellions by the Jews against Rome - rebellions which took the lives of many Romans and shook the entire Roman Empire - the Romans refused to take any more chances; they pursued vigorously even the slightest appearance of opposition to their rule. It seems that large numbers of Roman soldiers spent years searching for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in order to kill him. Finally, he was no longer able to trust his wife - he and his son went to hide in a different cave. There, a miracle occurred: A carob tree sprouted up, and a natural spring began to flow, sustaining them for twelve years until they were informed that the emperor had finally died, his decree nullified. By then, as a result of their study in the cave, Rabbi Shimon and his son had become so elevated in Torah that when they came out they were unable to bear the sight of mundane worldly endeavors. Every place upon which they set their eyes was set aflame. They had to return to the cave for an entire year in order to delve even deeper and grasp the true value of this world. Having achieved this, they came out.
Concerning one's livelihood, the opinion of the majority of the Sages is that each individual must earn his own living, and that Torah scholars are no exception. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, though, held that if man were to plow at the fixed time, sow at the fixed time, harvest at the fixed time, thresh at the fixed time, and winnow at the fixed time, nothing would be left of his Torah study. Rather, when the Jews fulfill God's will their work is carried out by others, but when they do not fulfill God's will they have no choice but to work for themselves... what's more, they end up having to do the work of others as well!
And while Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai's approach may not be appropriate for the masses, and necessity causes us to compromise and give in to the pressures of life, still, there is abundant value in the existence of a great Torah scholar who lives his life uncompromisingly and in accordance with absolute values. For, through him all of us are able to see with our own eyes what absolute devotion to the Torah really is. A great vision of faith and redemption radiates in the personage of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who sacrificed himself for the pride of Israel and declared to all generations that the Kingdom of Rome which brought suffering to the Jews, was "the Evil Kingdom." Because of his outstanding self-sacrifice for the sake of the Torah and the faith of Israel, large numbers of Jews continue to demonstrate their honor and respect Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai each year on Lag BaOmer.
Rabbi Shimon's pursual of the secrets of the Torah, then, is very much in keeping with his nature. Through the Kabbalah it is possible to grasp the realm of eternal values, complete faith, the uniqueness of Israel, and the certainty of redemption, for the Kabbalah elevates the student above the deceptive and illusive world of the senses illuminating before him true and eternal values in magnificent light.
The Lag BaOmer Hillula also represents a day of remembrance for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai's outstanding mentor, Rabbi Akiva, the extraordinary Tannaitic sage and giant of the Oral Torah. Rabbi Shimon himself, when he wished to encourage his students to commit his lessons to memory would tell them that his own teachings were in fact a concentrated version of what he had learned from Rabbi Akiva (Gittin 67a). Rabbi Shimon inherited the quality of self-sacrifice for the honor of Israel from his mentor. For it was Rabbi Akiva who supported and encouraged the Bar Kochba uprising against the Romans.
Indeed, according to the earlier rabbis and the "Shulchan Aruch" authoritative code of Jewish law, the reason for our joy on Lag BaOmer is that on that day the students of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying. To some authorities this explanation was puzzling, for according to Sephardic custom the mourning continues until the thirty-fourth day of the Omer, when the plague is said to have ended. How then is it possible to claim that the dying ended on "Lag," i.e. the thirty-third day of the Omer? In addition, Ashkenazic tradition teaches that the students of Rabbi Akiva died continuously throughout the entire Omer period. What, then, is the reason for our joy on Lag BaOmer?
Some explain that on Lag BaOmer new students joined Rabbi Akiva, and the plague did not effect them (Rabbi Chizkiyah de Silva, the "Pri Hadash"); others explain that on Lag BaOmer Rabbi Akiva ordained his five young disciples who had not died in the plague: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamoa, and through them the Torah tradition was preserved for the Jewish People ("Shaar HaKavanot"). So, we find that the essence of our joy on Lag BaOmer centers on the students of Rabbi Akiva who took it upon themselves to hand down the great master's tradition.
Were it our desire to discuss the greatness of Rabbi Akiva we would have to write an entire book. We will, then, only mention a little bit of the words of the Sages concerning his unique personality. "Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rav: 'When Moses went up to heaven, he found God sitting and placing crowns upon the letters [of the Torah]. He said to Him: "Almighty God, who is detaining you?" [i.e. Why must you be so precise about these crowns when there is no man on earth who understands their significance?] God replied, saying, "There is a man who will appear at the end of some generations by the name of Akiva ben Yoseph who will expound upon each and every tag numerous Torah laws (Menachot 29b).
Rabbi Akiva's devotion to the Jewish faith and Torah was boundless. When the Romans decreed the study of Torah forbidden, the great sage preferred to endanger himself rather than obey such a edict. He was arrested, placed in jail, and sentenced to a painful execution. The Sages teach: "When Rabbi Akiva was brought out to be executed it was the time of the reading of 'the Shema.' As they raked his body with iron combs, he received upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. His students said to him, 'Our Rabbi, this far?' [i.e. Normally, under such circumstances one is exempt from the obligation of reciting 'the Shema']. He replied: 'All of my life I have been troubled by the words "with all of your soul - even if it means having your life taken." I said to myself, "When will I have the opportunity to fulfill it?" - now that I have the opportunity, should I not fulfill it?' He then suspended the final word of the Shema - 'Echad' - until his soul departed from him. At that point, a Divine voice called out saying: 'Fortunate are you Rabbi Akiva that your soul left you while reciting "Echad"...you have been granted life in the world to come."
Even the Kabalistic aspect of Lag BaOmer is bound up with the personality Rabbi Akiva, for the Sages teach that Rabbi Akiva "entered the Orchard," [i.e. he delved into the deepest secrets of the Torah] and came out of it unharmed. Other scholars who entered with him were not so fortunate, for they were not able to bear the awesome secrets of "the Orchard." Thus, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai followed the example of his master in both Torah and self-sacrifice, and the Hillula of Lag BaOmer belongs to both Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Akiva.
Bonfires on Lag BaOmer
For hundreds of years now there has been a custom to light a large bonfire in Meron in honor of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai's Hillula. Even in places other than Meron, Hassidic Jews make of practice of lighting bonfires on Lag BaOmer. Some also light candles in the synagogue in honor of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai's Hillula. The candle and its light symbolize Torah and Mitzvoth, as it says, "For the commandment is a candle, and the Torah, light" (Proverbs 6:23).
Indeed, fire is an incredible substance; it is truly amazing that cold, lifeless wood or oil is capable of producing a flame with the power to illuminate, heat, and burn. Hence, the Torah and its commandments are likened to the fire and its light, for by virtue of the Torah and the Mitzvoth performed in this cold and dark world, man merits life in the world to come. Hassidic Jews, then, make a practice of lighting bonfires on Lag BaOmer in order to hint at the great light of the secrets of the Torah which were revealed by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The Zohar records that on the day on which Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai died, he revealed the secrets of the Torah, and the house became filled with light and fire to the point that the students could not approach or even look at Rabbi Shimon.
There are some who make it their practice to throw expensive clothing into the bonfire at Meron, claiming that they do this in honor of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Yet, many authorities have questioned this practice claiming that not only is it senseless and unfounded, it is also in direct violation to the Torah prohibition of "Bal Tashchit," not to destroy objects for no good reason. Other authorities come to the defense of such a practice claiming that only when one destroys an item for no reason whatsoever does one violate the prohibition of "Bal Tashchit," but when it is done for a reason - in our case, in honor of Rabbi Shimon - it is not forbidden. At any rate, it appears that it is better to sell these garments and donate the money to the needy than to throw them into the fire.
When praying at the graves of the righteous one must be careful not to address them in prayer, for we are commanded to pray to God only, and when one prays to the righteous he has violated a Torah prohibition. Such an act is similar to "calling upon the dead" which the Torah explicitly forbade (Deuteronomy 18:11). Still, there are authorities that permit entreating the soul of a righteous one with the request that it intercede before God on behalf of the one praying by its grave. However, others forbid this as well claiming that even this is a form of calling upon the dead, and that every prayer must be directed to God and God alone, without involving any intermediary. One is permitted to pray with the request that God receive his prayer through the merit of the righteous, for by attaching ourselves to the good deeds and wisdom of the righteous we ourselves become better people, and by virtue of this we request that our prayers be accepted.
At any rate, it is important to emphasize that the Lag BaOmer customs are not obligatory, and neither the "Rambam" (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon) nor the "Shulchan Aruch" advocated lighting a bonfire on Lag BaOmer, or journeying to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and many great Torah scholars did not practice these customs at all.