Disclaimer: This blog post intends to celebrate cultural and religious diversity. Its main purpose is to inspire other people to acknowledge and appreciate different perspectives. I am not Jewish; therefore, this article won’t be as complete as it would have been if someone who celebrated the holiday wrote it.
Last week on the 30th of April was the celebration of Lag BaOmer. For many people holidays are connected with a lot of feelings; therefore, it was very important for me to include a Jewish perspective. “Lag BaOmer is a joyous day, a happy day” is what a friend told me after I asked what Lag BaOmer means to her. “We celebrate the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai because he asked us to be joyous on this day”.
What exactly is Lag BaOmer? Who is Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai? What was celebrated? And why does this celebration involve bonfires?
What is celebrated on Lag BaOmer?
Besides talking to a friend about Lag BaOmer and her experience of this holiday (directly going to the source is the best thing you can do in my opinion :)), I did what most people nowadays do when they have a question; I consulted the internet. While reading about Lag BaOmer I came across multiple sources stating that there is no definitive explanation why Lag BaOmer is celebrated but there are a few very educationally and inspiring ones.
The first of the two most cited explanations describes a plague that killed thousands of Rabbi Akivia’s students (he was one of the leading Jewish scholars and sages) due to their lack of respect in their treatment of each other. He lost 24000 students in this plague which happened to end on Lag BaOmer.
Another explanation is the celebration of the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. He was a sage in the 2nd century.
“He led a life of Torah. […] He showed us the deeper meaning of the Torah because he wrote the Zohar [this is a group of books that basically include commentary on the mystical aspects of the Torah] and we say that he was a reincarnation […] of Moses.“
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s story really drew me in. He lived in Israel during a time where it was occupied by the Romans. Because he was sentenced to death for criticizing the Romans, he and his son were forced to go into hiding in a cave where they spent the next 12 years praying and studying the Torah. When Elijah the prophet told them, it was safe for them to go outside, they left the cave for the first time in 12 years. The first thing they saw when setting their feet out of the cave, was people working the land, looking after their cattle; they seemed to have abandoned eternal life, putting their Torah studies aside. But that is not the only thing that happened when they step outside; for some reason, everything they looked at went up in flames.
What could this mean? Why fire? Didn’t Elijah tell them they were ready to leave the cave? One explanation I came across was the following: Because both had studied the Torah that intensively, they had the highest connection to God and could see past the falsehood and vanities of the world. They understood that the holy pursuit and learning the Torah are most important in life. But they also seemed to see the world in black and white; a world where there is no place for things that don’t fit in, where there is no place for people with different a perspective.
Now, how does the story continue? After a heavenly voice told them to go back into the cave and they didn’t set foot outside for another year, they left the cave for a second time. His son still burned things with his gaze, however, something in Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai changed; he was able to undo all the damage his son did. It seems like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai had a new way of looking at the rest of the world. There was acceptance; he accepted that other people were misguided.
In the last part of the story, the two saw an old man holding myrtle branches. After asking him why he was holding them and what they were for, they discovered that they were in honor of Shabbat. This shows the last part of his transition. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s mind seemed to be at ease. By allowing themselves to listen to a different perspective they were able to see, admire and appreciate someone who severed God but in a different way.
“Another lesson is that the Jewish people always stick to the Torah no matter what”
How is Lag BaOmer celebrated?
Sooo, what exactly is Lag BaOmer?
Lag BaOmer is the celebration of the passing Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and the celebration of the Jewish people receiving the Torah on another level. It is a day that carries the theme of joy as well as loving and respecting others.
The RMP voice team hopes you had a joyous Lag BaOmer 🙂
by Joy Brinsa
Klagsbrun, F. (2005, May 6). What Is Lag Ba’omer? My Jewish Learning. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/lag-baomer/
Lag BaOmer. (2010). Knesset.Gov.Il. https://www.knesset.gov.il/lexicon/eng/lag_baomer_eng.htm
Lag BaOmer: Who was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai? (2018, May 3). [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7L-NCiPsFMA
Posner, M. (2021). What is Lag BaOmer? – Lag BaOmer. Chabad.Org. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/679300/jewish/What-Is-Lag-BaOmer.htm
Yoninah. (2010). Lag BaOmer bonfire [Photograph]. Wikipedia. https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lag_Baomer#/media/Bestand:Lag_BaOmer_bonfire.jpg