It is customary to light bonfires on the eve of Lag BaOmer. This is especially common in Meron, Israel (the resting place of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who passed away on Lag BaOmer). On a typical Lag BaOmer, one can witness hundreds of thousands of people flocking to Meron, where they light giant bonfires and sing and dance throughout the night.

The earliest mention of this custom is found in a letter written by Rabbi Ovadia of Bertinoro (c. 1445–c. 1515, known for his classic commentary on the Mishnah) to his brother, when he traveled to Israel, where he writes that on the 18th of Iyar (e.g. Lag Baomer) they would gather and light large fires.1

Here are some of the reasons given for this custom.

His Light Shines Today

Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, known by the title of his book as the Bnei Yissaschar, notes that on the day of a righteous person’s passing, all the holy work he has done is revealed in this world. Thus, on Lag BaOmer, the true light of Rabbi Shimon’s accomplishments in revealing the hidden aspects of the Torah shone forth like a blazing fire.2

Sun Waited for the Light of the Torah

The Zohar relates that on the day that Rabbi Shimon passed away, sunset was delayed until he finished revealing the secrets of the Torah. Additionally, he himself shone so brightly that his students could not gaze upon him. In the words of the Zohar:

Rabbi Shimon said: "All my life, I've been begging to reveal this secret. And up until today, my request has been turned down. But today, I received permission. I decree that this day does not turn into the night like any ordinary day. This day belongs to me, as I begin to reveal the secrets . . .” Rabbi Shimon sat down, engaging in the Divine Torah. Rabbi Aba sat down in front of him and took notes . . . A fire burned around them, and the sun did not set. He revealed hidden Torah secrets from the Kabbalah until he reached the verse ". . . For there the L‑rd commanded the blessing, life forever.”3 Rabbi Aba said: “Our teacher had not finished enunciating the word chaim (‘life’) when his words began to become increasingly imperceptible . . . Throughout the day a fire burned in the house, and no one could come near him because he was engulfed by light and fire.”4

Why was the daylight extended until he finished teaching? The Bnei Yissaschar explains that it was to signify that all the lights of the world were created for the Torah.5 Our bonfires mirror the sunlight that shone in honor of this special day.

“The Holy Candle”

Many times in the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is referred to as butzina kadisha, “the holy candle,” since he brought to light the secrets of the Torah.6

“The Voice of the L‑rd”

The Kabbalists explain that the seven weeks of the Omer correspond to the seven mentions of the “voice” of G‑d in Psalms 29 (recited as part of Kabbalat Shabbat). They, in turn, correspond to the seven attributes we refine during this period. The fifth attribute, which we refine during the week of Lag BaOmer, is the attribute of hod, splendor, which corresponds to the verse “The voice of the L‑rd cleaves with flames of fire.”7

The fifth day of the fifth week, Lag BaOmer, corresponds to hod shebe-hod (“splendor within splendor”). Thus, Lag BaOmer is especially linked to the verse “The voice of the L‑rd cleaves with flames of fire.”8

17 Days Before the Giving of the Torah

Lag BaOmer is 17 days before Shavuot.

The verse in Proverbs associates the Torah with light: “For a commandment is a candle, and the Torah is light . . .”9 In Genesis, we read, “And G‑d saw the light, that it was tov (‘good’).” The sages say that this refers to the light of the Torah.

The word tov has a numerical value of seventeen. Accordingly, 17 days before the Giving of the Torah (celebrated on Shavuot), the light of the Torah begins to shine forth. It is no coincidence that this is also the day of Rabbi Shimon’s passing (and some say birth as well), for he is credited with revealing the inner light of the Torah, which shows how the ways of Torah are good.10

Lighting the Darkness of Exile

Every day of counting the Omer is meant to be a day of working on ourselves and the world around us. The way to light up the darkness of exile is through the teachings of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, as found in the Zohar. In fact, the very word zohar means “radiance.” To underscore this point, we light fires on the day of his passing.11

In fact, the Zohar tells us that through its teachings, we will be taken out of this exile with mercy.12

May it be speedily in our days!