What is Lag BaOmer?
Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day of the Omer count—which this year is celebrated on May 14, 2017—is a festive day on the Jewish calendar. It is celebrated with outings, bonfires, parades and other joyous events. Many visit the resting place of the great sage and mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the anniversary of whose passing is on this day.
Lag BaOmer is always on the 18th day of the month of Iyar. The word “Lag” is made up of the Hebrew letters lamed (ל) and gimel (ג), which together have the numerical value of 33. “BaOmer” means “of the Omer.” The Omer is the counting period that begins on the second day of Passover and culminates with the holiday of Shavuot, following day 49. Hence, Lag BaOmer is the 33rd day of the Omer count which coincides with 18 Iyar. What happened on 18 Iyar that is worth celebrating?
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who lived in the second century of the Common Era, was the first to publicly teach the mystical dimension of the Torah known as the Kabbalah and is the author of the classic text of Kabbalah– the Zohar. On the day of his passing, Rabbi Shimon instructed his disciples to mark the date as “the day of my joy.” Lag BaOmer also commemorates another joyous event. The Talmud relates that in the weeks between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot, a plague raged among the disciples of the great sage RabbiAkiva (the teacher of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) because “they did not act respectfully towards each other.” These weeks are therefore observed as a period of mourning with various joyous activities proscribed by law and custom. On Lag BaOmer, the deaths ceased. Thus, Lag BaOmer also carries the theme of loving and respecting one’s fellow (Ahavat Yisrael).
How Is Lag BaOmer Celebrated?
Since this is the day of joy of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, there are major festivities in Meron– the mountain village in northern Israel where he is buried– with tens of thousands of pilgrims pouring in from all corners of the world to rejoice together. All over the world, it is customary to spend the day outside, enjoying the natural beauty of G‑d’s world. Recognizing the fiery spirit of the mystical teachings that are celebrated today, bonfires are kindled. The mourning practices of the Omer period (see above) are lifted for this day. As a result, music is playing and people are singing and dancing with abandon. Little boys, who turn 3 years of age during the Omer period but did not have their first haircut (Upsheren) due to the mourning laws, have them today, often at Meron. Weddings are held on this day. So—go outside, celebrate with music and a bonfire and remember the theme of Ahavat Yisroel.