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The History of Lag BaOmer

The History of Lag BaOmer

A rich overview of the many customs that surround this special day

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Lag BaOmer is a festive day on the Jewish calendar, celebrated for a twofold reason.

The Talmud1 describes how, during the period of Sefirat HaOmer (the days between Passover and Shavuot), a plague was visited on Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students because they did not behave with proper respect for one another. To commemorate the tragedy, certain mourning customs are observed during this time.2 On the thirty-third day of the Omer count, however, the students stopped dying. (Lamed-gimmel, pronounced lag, is the Hebrew number 33.) The mourning customs are suspended, and we celebrate the day as a holiday.3

Lag BaOmer is also the yahrtzeit (anniversary of passing), several decades later, of the great sage and mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, best known as the principal author of the Zohar, the fundamental text of Jewish mysticism. The Zohar4 relates that on the day of his passing, Rabbi Shimon revealed new and profound mystical ideas to his disciples, and commanded them that rather than mourn for him, they should rejoice on this day, just as he rejoiced in his soul’s imminent reunion with G‑d.

All over the world, Lag BaOmer is marked with festive outings and picnics, where children play with toy bows and arrows. In Israel, tens of thousands gather in the small Upper Galilee village of Meron to celebrate at Rabbi Shimon’s gravesite. The night is lit up by bonfires of all sizes; the singing and dancing is a sight to behold.

When did these customs start? What is their significance, and how have they developed throughout the centuries? Let’s take a look at the sources of these unique traditions.

The Pilgrimage to Meron

The Zohar and other sources mention that some of Rabbi Shimon’s disciples would routinely visit his grave to pray and connect with their teacher.5 Among the prominent personalities who visited his grave were the Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero,6 and Rabbi Yosef Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch, who once spent the holiday of Sukkot in Meron with his family and disciples. There was a drought at the time, and Rabbi Yosef Caro prayed intensely for rain, culminating in the hoshaanot (the ritual of circling with the Four Species). His prayers were answered, and it rained.7

The first documented account of the custom of visiting Meron on Lag BaOmer is found in a fascinating letter by Rabbi Ovadiah of Bertinoro (15th–16th centuries), leader of the Jewish community in Israel, famous for his commentary on the Mishnah. He describes the day succinctly: “On the 18th day of the month of Iyar [the day of Lag BaOmer], the anniversary of [Rabbi Shimon’s] passing, Jews from all the surrounding areas gather in Meron, where they light large fires and celebrate . . . Many barren couples conceive, and many sick are healed, in the merit of the charity they give on this day to the upkeep of the gravesite.”8

Rabbi Chaim Vital, prime student of the master Kabbalist Arizal, writes in his Shaar ha-Kavanot:

In regard to the custom of many to travel to visit the graves of Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar in Meron with celebration and festive meals, I witnessed how my master and teacher [the Ari] traveled there on the first Lag BaOmer after he arrived in Israel from Egypt with his family and disciples, and stayed for three days . . . Rabbi Yonatan Sagis [another disciple] told me that even before I had met him, the Ari and his entire family traveled to Meron on Lag BaOmer, where they gave his son his first haircut, as is the custom . . .9

(There is a well-known custom to let a male child’s hair grow long until his third birthday, when he receives his first haircut. Called an upsherin in Yiddish and chalakah by Sephardic Jews, the occasion is celebrated with a festive meal [see more here]. The purpose of the custom is to wait until he can realize that his sidelocks, peyot, were not cut completely, as mandated by the Torah.10 When the child’s birthday falls out in the days of Sefirat HaOmer, when cutting hair is forbidden, we wait until Lag BaOmer, when it is permitted. If the child is in Israel, it is customary to travel to Meron for the cutting ceremony [read more here]).

To illustrate the festive spirit that permeates this day, Rabbi Chaim Vital continues with this anecdote:

Also my colleague Rabbi Avraham ha-Levi told me the same . . . and that he [Rabbi Avraham] had a custom to recite mourning prayers for the destruction of the Temple that are recited on the 9th of Av [the anniversary of the destruction] every day of the year. And so he did also that year on Lag BaOmer in Meron, in the daily prayers that he said while next to the grave. After he had finished praying, the Ari turned to him and told him that Rabbi Shimon himself had just appeared to the Ari and told him to rebuke Rabbi Avraham because he had expressed mourning at his grave—and on the day of Lag BaOmer, the day of Rabbi Shimon’s personal rejoicing!

Bonfires

Another custom, practiced especially in Meron and throughout Israel, is to light bonfires on the night of Lag BaOmer. The earliest source for this custom is the abovementioned letter from Rabbi Ovadiah of Bertinoro.

The famed chassidic master Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, known by the title of his book as the Bnei Yissaschar, gives an interesting explanation for the custom. He writes11 that on the day of a tzaddik’s passing, all the holy work he has done culminates and is revealed in this world. On Lag BaOmer, the true power of Rabbi Shimon’s accomplishments as one of the foremost Mishniac sages and the author of the Kabbalah shone forth.

In fact, it is recorded in the Zohar12 that the overwhelming deluge of spiritual light had such a potent effect on the world that the sun did not set until Rabbi Shimon had finished conveying his wisdom and passed on, and that a spiritual fire surrounded his deathbed the entire day.13 We light fires to commemorate the spiritual revelation that occurred on this day.

Bows and Arrows

Many have a custom to give children toy bows and arrows to play with at Lag BaOmer picnics. The Bnei Yissachar cites an explanation from one of his teachers that, as a result of Rabbi Shimon’s great merits, no rainbow was seen during his lifetime. (According to Torah, the rainbow is a sign of G‑d’s displeasure.14) We play with bows to commemorate this miracle.

Another reason is based on the teaching of the Zohar that there will be an extremely bright, vivid rainbow before Moshiach comes. This is connected to Lag BaOmer because Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, founder of the chassidic movement, taught that learning the mystical dimension of Torah espoused by Rabbi Shimon brings the messianic era closer.15 We play with a bow to remind us of the imminent arrival of Moshiach.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, provides additional explanations for the custom, which can be read here.

Carobs

The Talmud relates how Rabbi Shimon was once overheard criticizing the Roman government in Israel, and had to flee for his life together with his son Rabbi Elazar. The two took refuge in a cave, where they remained for 13 years, studying Torah. G‑d made a fresh spring emerge miraculously by the mouth of their cave, and a carob tree grew, whose fruits supplied them with food.16 Many have a custom to eat carob fruit on Lag BaOmer to commemorate this story.

Miraculous Blessings

Many blessings have been attributed to praying at Rabbi Shimon’s grave, particularly blessings related to healthy offspring. One of the most famous stories was witnessed and recorded by Rabbi Yeshayah Asher Ze’ev Margolis, author of a well-known and authoritative book on Lag BaOmer, Sefer Hillula de-Rashbi:

This is a story that I myself witnessed on Lag BaOmer in the year 5683 [1923], in the town of Meron. That year Lag BaOmer was on Friday, so the many thousands of visitors to the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon [couldn’t travel back on Shabbat and] stayed over till Sunday.

On Shabbat morning, after the Musaf prayers, pandemonium suddenly broke out. It came to light that there was a Sephardi woman who had brought her 3-year-old son to Meron for his first haircut, as is the custom, when he quite suddenly contracted the dreaded typhus. He had indeed just passed on, and was lying in one of the small side rooms off of the main building.

The local British authorities, hearing of this, had come to quarantine the entire building, out of fear of the infection spreading. Many inside tried to escape, and families were torn apart, with some locked out while their loved ones were trapped inside.

The poor mother’s voice rose above the pandemonium, crying in agony over her son’s sudden fate. I personally saw the dead body lying on the floor, with no sign of life visible, and all present felt utterly helpless with nothing to be done to comfort her.

All of a sudden the mother scooped up her son’s body and proceeded downstairs, directly to the grave of Rabbi Shimon. She placed the body on the floor adjacent to the grave and cried out, “Holy Rabbi, I have brought here my son, whom I begot through your blessing, for his first haircut in your honor. Yesterday he was alive and healthy, and we celebrated with singing and dancing, with joy and celebration. How can I return home now like this?”
Then she cried out, “Tzaddik, Tzaddik, I am going to leave my son where he is right now next to you. Please, I beseech you, do not turn me back emptyhanded.”

Everyone in the room left, including her, and the door was locked. A few minutes passed, and suddenly the cry of a small child was audible. The door was opened, and lo and behold, the boy was standing up, crying for a drink of water. The only explanation for this was a miracle done by the G‑dly man Rabbi Shimon, to sanctify G‑d’s name to all.17

Lag BaOmer in Chabad

Chabad Chassidim of old looked forward to Lag BaOmer, when the rebbe would hold a large farbrengen in the countryside surrounding the town of Lubavitch, as described in Hayom Yom:

By the Mittler Rebbe [Rabbi Dov Ber, the second Chabad Rebbe], Lag BaOmer was among the most special Jewish holidays. They would go out to the fields, and though he personally did not partake of the actual meal [although everyone else did], he would say l’chaim . . . There would be many wonders that were seen then. The majority of them were in regards to [the blessing of] having children. For a whole year, they would wait for Lag BaOmer.18

Beginning in the 1950s, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, encouraged Jewish children to join together in grand Lag BaOmer parades as a show of Jewish unity and pride. Held in front of the Lubavitch world headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, the parades attracted--and still attract--thousands of children from all walks of life.

In accordance with the Rebbe’s general instruction that any gathering of Jews should be connected with Judaism and Torah, the children would recite the 12 Pesukim, 12 Torah passages selected by the Rebbe as containing the most fundamental ideas in Judaism, before the parades began. The floats displayed Jewish themes, and the parades were followed by festivities for the entire family.

Often the Rebbe spoke at the parades, sometimes addressing current world events. A well-known example of this was the 1967 parade, when the Rebbe spoke about the crisis happening in the Middle East. He issued a call to increase in the fulfillment of the Torah as a medium for expanded divine blessings for the Jewish people, and predicted that a great miracle would shortly happen. He stood out as one of the few Jewish leaders to anticipate Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War.

In 1980 the Rebbe gave instructions that Lag BaOmer parades and children’s rallies should take place not only in New York, but across the world, especially in Israel. Thousands of children participated in the tens of rallies that took place that year, and until today Chabad organizes hundreds of Lag BaOmer parades around the world each year.

Perhaps the most important lesson the holiday has to offer is expressed in a letter the Rebbe wrote to all Jews in honor of Lag BaOmer 1974. When one examines Rabbi Shimon’s life, he writes, one sees that there were two focal points around which it revolved: Torah study and love of fellow Jews. Although not everyone can study Torah as an exclusive occupation, as Rabbi Shimon did, everyone can and should set aside times each day to devote solely to Torah study without any outside interference. This should be permeated with a sense of ahavat Yisrael—love of a fellow Jew—which will bring them to encourage others to follow suit.

By fulfilling this directive, may we merit to experience a time when there will be only light in the world, and G‑d’s presence will be visible and tangible to all mankind.

Footnotes
1.
Yevamot 62b.
2.
For more information about the mourning customs of Sefirat HaOmer, see here.
3.
Tur & Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 493.
4.
Zohar 3:291a.
5.
Zohar 1:4a; Kohelet Rabbah 10:10; Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a.
6.
Sefer ha-Gerushin, 17–18.
7.
Maggid Meisharim, Emor.
8.
Taamei ha-Minhagim, p. 201.
9.
Shaar ha-Kavanot, Pesach 12; Pri Etz Chayim, Gate 22, ch. 7.
11.
Bnei Yissaschar, Iyar, discourse 3.
12.
Zohar 3:291a.
13.
Ibid. 3:296b.
15.
Keter Shem Tov 1.
16.
Talmud, Shabbat 33b,
17.
Sefer Hillula de-Rashbi, p. 9.
18.
Hayom Yom, 18 Iyar.
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Dr Yitzchok Moskowitz Washington, DC May 21, 2014

Excellent article Rabbi Altein has concisely captured all the law and custom of Lag B'Omer in this article. I hope to see many more by him in the future, G-d willing. Reply

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