Lag BaOmer celebrates the lives and teachings of two of the greatest sages in Jewish history, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. It is also the Jewish holiday that is particularly associated with the Kabbalah, the "soul" or mystical dimension of Judaism.

What Is Lag BaOmer?

Lag BaOmer means "the 33rd of the Omer," for this is the 33rd day of the 49-day "Counting of the Omer" which connects Passover to Shavuot.

The seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot are a time of anticipation and preparation, during which we retrace the Israelites' journey from the Exodus to Mount Sinai. As our ancestors did more than 33 centuries ago, we count these 49 days and refine the 49 sefirot ("attributes" or characteristics of the soul) associated with them.

But the Omer weeks are also a time of sadness. No marriages are conducted during this period; like mourners, we don't cut our hair or enjoy the sound of music. For as the Talmud tells us, it was in this period that thousands of Torah scholars, disciples of the great sage Rabbi Akiva, died in a plague because "they did not conduct themselves with respect for each other."

One day, however, stands out as an isle of joy in these despondent weeks. On Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day of the Omer Count, the laws proscribing joy during the Omer period are suspended. Children are taken out on parades and outings and play games with bows and arrows, and the day is marked as a festive and joyous occasion.

There are two reasons for this joy. One is that the plague that raged among Rabbi Akiva's disciples ceased on this day. A second reason is that it is the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose teachings heralded a new epoch in the revelation and dissemination of the mystical dimension of the Torah known as the "Kabbalah." Lag BaOmer, the day on which Rabbi Shimon's life's work achieved its culminating perfection, is celebrated as the festival of the esoteric soul of Torah.

Read: How to Celebrate Lag BaOmer at Home

Rabbi Akiva and His Disciples

Rabbi Akiva lived in the Holy Land in one of the most difficult times of Jewish history—the generation following the destruction of the Holy Temple (in the year 69 of the Common Era) and the vicious persecution of the Jews by the Romans.

The Romans forbade the study of Torah and the practice of Judaism on the pain of death. Rabbi Akiva, who had studied under the great sages of the previous generation, boldly defied the Roman by transmitting what he had received to his disciples, thereby guaranteeing the survival of the Torah. Indeed, the entire body of Torah law (subsequently recorded in the Mishnah and Talmud) can be traced to the teachings of Rabbi Akiva and his disciples.

Until age forty, Akiva was an illiterate shepherd, ignorant even of the Hebrew alef-bet and harboring an ignoramus' animosity toward Torah scholars. But Rachel, the beautiful and pious daughter of the wealthy Jerusalemite whose flocks Akiva tended, recognized his potential, and promised to marry him if he would devote his life to the study of Torah.

While grazing his master's sheep one day, Akiva came across a stone in which a deep groove had been carved by a trickle of water. "If drops of water can bore through solid rock," he said to himself, "surely the words of Torah will eventually penetrate my mind." Akiva and Rachel married, and Akiva fulfilled his promise and went to study Torah. Disowned by Rachel's father, the two endured many years of poverty and hardship; in the end, however, their sacrifice paid off, and Rabbi Akiva became the greatest teacher of Torah of his time, with 24,000 students. "All that I have achieved, and all that you have achieved," he said to them, "is to her credit."

But then tragedy struck. Discord and strife broke out between Rabbi Akiva's disciples, and thousands of them died in a plague in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot. Finally, on the 33rd day of the Omer, the dying ceased, and Rabbi Akiva was able to rebuild his great school of Torah scholarship, beginning with his five greatest disciples: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Yossei, Rabbi Nechemiah and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

Read: Rabbi Akiva: His Life and Teachings

The First Lesson of Lag BaOmer: The Paradox of Love

The Rebbe speaks to children at a Lag BaOmer parade in the mid 1970s. The flag of the United States of America is in the foreground.
The Rebbe speaks to children at a Lag BaOmer parade in the mid 1970s. The flag of the United States of America is in the foreground.

Rabbi Akiva taught that "Love your fellow as yourself" is a "cardinal principle in Torah"; indeed, this is the most famous of his teachings. One would therefore expect that Rabbi Akiva's disciples would be the foremost exemplars of this principle. How was it that they, of all people, were deficient in this area?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that their very diligence in fulfilling the precept "Love your fellow as yourself" was their undoing. Our sages have said that "Just as every person's face differs from the faces of his fellows, so, too, every person's mind differs from the minds of his fellows." When Rabbi Akiva's 24,000 disciples studied their master's teachings, the result was 24,000 nuances of understanding, as the same concepts were assimilated by 24,000 minds—each unique and distinct from its fellows. Had Rabbi Akiva's students loved each other less, this would have been a matter of minor concern; but because each disciple endeavored to love his fellows as himself, he felt compelled to correct their "erroneous" thinking and behavior, and to enlighten them as to the true meaning of their master's words. For the same reason, they found themselves incapable of expressing a hypocritical "respect" for each other's views when they sincerely believed that the other's understanding was lacking, even in the slightest degree.

The lesson of Lag BaOmer, says the Rebbe, is twofold, for we must learn from the virtues of Rabbi Akiva's disciples as well as from their mistakes. We must learn to care enough for our fellow man and woman not to indulge his errors and accommodate her failings. This might be the easiest and most socially comfortable way to behave, but, rather than "tolerance," it bespeaks an indifference toward his or her welfare. On the other hand, we must never allow our commitment to our fellow's betterment to lessen in the slightest our respect and esteem toward him or her, no matter how misguided and unresponsive they might be.

If this seems paradoxical, it is. But the ability to embrace this paradox is at the very heart of the Torah's commandment to "Love your fellow as yourself." For in regard to ourselves, it is a paradox with which we are quite comfortable—we love ourselves, unconditionally, and at the same time we strive to improve ourselves. This paradox of love we must also cultivate in our relationship with others, in order to truly love a fellow as yourself: on the one hand, we must never compromise our efforts to improve our fellow man out of respect for his views and feelings; on the other hand, we must never allow these efforts to compromise our love and respect for him.

Read: Love Your Fellow

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai

The entrance to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon at Meron (credit: Yishai Peretz).
The entrance to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon at Meron (credit: Yishai Peretz).

The second great personality whose life we celebrate on Lag BaOmer is Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who passed away on this date.

Like Rabbi Akiva his teacher, Rabbi Shimon suffered persecution at the hands of the Romans. A price was placed on his head, and Rabbi Shimon had to go into hiding.

In the hills of northern Israel, Rabbi Shimon and his son, Rabbi Elazar, hid in a cave for many years, during which time they studied Torah day and night. G‑d performed many miracles for them: a carob tree grew at the mouth of their cave to feed them, and water was provided by the creation of a fresh mountain spring. Elijah the Prophet appeared to them, and taught them secret mysteries of the Torah.

After twelve years in the cave, word reached Rabbi Shimon that the Roman Emperor who had ordered his death was no longer alive. The danger had passed; Rabbi Shimon and his son could now leave their cave.

Read: Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai

The Second Lesson of Lag BaOmer: Torah and the World

Holding the scroll up for all to see. According to tradition, the moments after a Torah is completed is considered an auspicious time to pray to G-d for blessings. (Photo: Chabad of Binghamton/Bentzi Sasson)
Holding the scroll up for all to see. According to tradition, the moments after a Torah is completed is considered an auspicious time to pray to G-d for blessings. (Photo: Chabad of Binghamton/Bentzi Sasson)

It was Lag BaOmer when Rabbi Shimon and Elazar stepped forth from the darkness into the bright sunlight. It was springtime, and the farmers were busy in the fields, plowing and sowing. But to Rabbi Shimon, this was not a beautiful sight. It seemed to him a great folly, even a sin. Man's years in this world are precious and few—how dare he expend them working the earth, when he could be devoting himself to the splendor of G‑d's holy Torah?

Rabbi Shimon had developed tremendous powers during his twelve years in the cave, and now, as he looked with anger upon this unwelcome sight, the fields and trees burst into flame. A Heavenly voice was heard, saying: "Did you come out to destroy My world? Return to your cave!"

So Rabbi Shimon and Elazar returned to the cave for another year, further immersing themselves in the Divine wisdom. It was in their thirteenth year in the cave that uncovered the Torah's deepest secret: that the purpose of creation is to "Make a dwelling for G‑d in the physical world." They learned that though man's earthly labor seems coarse and lowly, the greatest holiness is hidden within this physical world. G‑d desires that we transform the material world into a home for Him. A life utterly devoted to Torah serves this end, but so, too, does a life devoted to developing the material world in conformity with the Divine will. It is not for everyone to spend all his time in Torah study like Rabbi Shimon and his son.

When Rabbi Shimon emerged from the cave on the following Lag BaOmer, he was no less committed to the study of Torah; indeed, this was to remain his "sole occupation" for the rest of his life. But he had also learned to appreciate the value of the pathways toward the fulfillment of the Divine purpose other than his own. Now, his gaze upon the world healed rather than destroyed.

Read: Thirteen Years in a Cave, Now What?

The Mystic Soul of Torah

Rabbi Shimon was one of the greatest expounders of Halachah, or Torah law; in fact, almost every one of the Talmud's 523 chapters contains at least one law cited in his name. Yet Rabbi Shimon is most deeply identified with Torah's "hidden" or mystical element. He is the author of the Zohar, the most basic Kabbalistic work, and the initiator of a new era in the history of Torah's transmission through the generations.

Up until Rabbi Shimon's time, the mystic soul of Torah was transmitted only in the form of cryptic maxims, and only in private to a very few individuals in each generation. Rabbi Shimon was the first to expound upon these most intimate secrets of the Divine wisdom, which chart the sublime expanses of the Divine reality, the processes of creation, G‑d's relationship to our existence, and the inner recesses of the human soul. Rabbi Shimon set in motion the process by which, in the generations that followed, these secrets gained a widening audience and an increasingly detailed and explicit elucidation. This process was accelerated many centuries later by the great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, who proclaimed, "In these times, we are permitted, and duty-bound, to reveal this wisdom," and more recently, by the founder of Chassidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, and his disciples.

The Chassidic masters have explained that the growing accessibility of the inner dimensions of Torah reflects history's progression toward the messianic era, when "The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of G‑d, as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9). The Zohar itself declares, "With this book shall Israel be mercifully redeemed."

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai passed away on Lag BaOmer. Before his passing, Rabbi Shimon instructed his disciples to observe his yahrzeit as a day of joy and festivity, explaining that it marks the culminating point of all he achieved in the course of his physical life.

The Zohar (which also includes the writings of Rabbi Shimon's disciples) describes the day of Rabbi Shimon's passing as filled with great light and endless joy, and the secret wisdom which he revealed that day to his disciples; for both master and his disciples, says the Zohar, it was like the day on which groom and bride rejoice under the wedding canopy. It is told that the day did not end until Rabbi Shimon had revealed all that he had been permitted to reveal. Only then was permission granted to the sun to set; and as it did, the soul of Rabbi Shimon departed from his body and ascended on high.

Read: What Is the Zohar?

Meron

Dancing in Meron on Lag BaOmer. (Photo: David Cohen/Flash 90)
Dancing in Meron on Lag BaOmer. (Photo: David Cohen/Flash 90)

Not far from the cave where Rabbi Shimon and his son Elazar hid for thirteen years is the village of Meron. There, high in the beautiful mountains of the Galilee, is the burial place of Rabbi Shimon, venerated to this day as one of the holiest places in the Land of Israel.

Each year on Lag BaOmer, tens of thousands of Jews come to Meron, together with their families, to celebrate Rabbi Shimon's day. They come from all parts of the country, and from all over the world, to pray at his gravesite, to study his holy Zohar, and to dance, sing and feast.

On the eve of Lag BaOmer, the fields and mountainsides near Meron are filled with people as far as the eye can see. Some pitch tents and stay overnight, or even for several days. Songs and laughter and the smell of delicious foods fill the air. At nightfall, people make giant bonfires, lighting up the darkness with the bright, shining light of Torah.

It is called the "Hillula (wedding feast) of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai"--a celebration not just here in this world, but in the highest worlds of the angels, and beyond. It has been a tradition for many hundreds of years, and some of the greatest sages of all time have joined in this custom. All kinds of Jews gather at Meron on Lag BaOmer—oriental Jews, European Jews, American Jews, Israeli Jews—and in the great merit of Rabbi Shimon, all these different people come together as one.

Read: Miracle in Meron

The "Upsherenish"

A little boy has his first haircut in Meron on Lag BaOmer.
A little boy has his first haircut in Meron on Lag BaOmer.

There is an ancient Jewish custom to delay a boy's first haircut until he reaches his third birthday. When a child turns three years old, he begins a new stage of development as a Jew. A boy receives his first haircut, in which he leaves the payot (sidelocks) as prescribed by the Torah; he also receives his first set of tzitzit (fringes) and kipah (skullcap). Girls begin lighting Shabbat candles. On that occasion, the Jewish child is introduced to the study of Torah with candies and honey, so he will always associate Torah learning with sweetness and delectability.

The haircutting is called the upsherenish in Yiddish, or the chalakah in Hebrew. Family and friends join in the ceremony; each takes a snip of hair, being careful to leave the payot unshorn.

During the Omer period, we are not permitted to take haircuts as a sign of mourning over the deaths of Rabbi Akiva's disciples. Lag BaOmer, however, is a day of joy, on which all the rules of mourning during the Omer period are suspended. And so, on Lag BaOmer, there are always lots of little three-year old Jewish boys who have been waiting since Passover to have their first haircut.

That is why, at Meron, every Lag BaOmer we see dozens and dozens of haircutting ceremonies. It is considered a wonderful blessing for a child to have his upsherenish at the burial site of Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.

Read: What Is an Upshernish?

The Bow

Another Lag BaOmer custom is to take the children to parks and fields to play with bows and arrows.

One of the explanations given for this custom is that it is told of Rabbi Shimon that no rainbow appeared in the sky in the course of his lifetime. The rainbow is a sign of human failing: as related in the ninth chapter of Genesis, G‑d promised that whenever mankind shall be as undeserving as it was in the generation of the Flood, the rainbow will remind Him of His vow to never again destroy His world. But as long as Rabbi Shimon was alive, his merit alone was enough to ensure that G‑d would not regret His creation. Hence the connection of the bow (keshet) to Lag BaOmer.

Chassidic teaching sees another connection of the bow with Rabbi Shimon's life and teachings. The bow operates on the principle of "retreat for the sake of advance": by drawing the arrow back, in the direction of his own heart, the warrior impels it a great distance, to strike the heart of the enemy.

The mystical essence of Torah, disseminated by Rabbi Shimon, operates by the same principle. Delve into yourself, it teaches, retreat to your own essence, to the very core of your soul; there you will uncover the selfless heart of the self, the "spark of G‑dliness" within you that is one with its Creator and His creation. And there you will uncover the power to defeat the most distant and obscure adversary; from there you will catapult your redeeming influence to the most forsaken corner of G‑d's world.

Read: Why the Bow and Arrow on Lag BaOmer?