I was reading up on your site about the reasons for celebrating Lag BaOmer, and I noticed that there is no mention of the wars Bar Kochba waged against the Romans after the destruction of the Temple. Why the omission?

Short Answer

In short, there is no authentic source indicating that the mourning during the Omer or the Lag BaOmer celebration has anything to do with the rebellion of Bar Kochba. In fact, it seems to contradict the reasons given in the Talmud and other traditional sources.1

Longer Answer

Let’s back up a bit. The Talmud2 and other sources3 explain that Sefirat HaOmer is a time of mourning because 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died due to a plague during that time period, and Lag BaOmer is a time of celebration because the students stopped dying. We also celebrate the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who instructed that people rejoice on the day of his passing (for more on this, see The History of Lag BaOmer).

So how did Bar Kochba get into the picture?

I hesitate to mention this theory, as it has no real basis in the Talmud. However, since this theory has gained some popularity in recent years, I’ll address it here.

Bar Kochba

During Rabbi Akiva’s lifetime, there was a great rebellion led by Shimon bar Kochba against the Romans, who were persecuting the Jews and enacting decrees against Jewish practices. Initially, Rabbi Akiva was a prominent supporter of Bar Kochba.

Based on this, about 200 years ago some non-traditional scholars put forth the theory that the students of Rabbi Akiva actually died in battle, fighting alongside Bar Kochba, and Lag BaOmer is really a celebration of one of Bar Kochba’s victories.4

Aside from contradicting traditional sources,5 there are a number of issues with this theory. Here are just a few of them.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai Learned in Bnei Brak

The Talmud6 relates:

Rabbi Akiva says: If one studied Torah in his youth he should study more Torah in his old age; if he had students in his youth he should have additional students in his old age, as it is stated: “In the morning sow your seed, etc.” They said [by way of example that] Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students in an area of land that stretched from Gevat to Antipatris in Judea, and they all died in one period of time, because they did not treat each other with respect. And the world was desolate of Torah until Rabbi Akiva came to our rabbis in the South and taught his Torah to them.

This second group of disciples consisted of Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosei, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. And these are the very ones who upheld the study of Torah at that time.

It is taught that all of [the 12,000 pairs of students] died in the period from Passover until Shavuot. Rav Chama bar Abba said, and some say it was Rabbi Chiyya bar Avin: They all died a bad death. The Gemara inquires: What is it that is called a bad death? Rav Naḥman said: Diphtheria.

In other words, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was Rabbi Akiva’s student after his 24,000 students had already died.

While there are some differences of opinion as to the exact year of the rebellion, traditionally the years given are either 527 or 688 years after the destruction of the Temple, and according to many opinions, Rabbi Akiva was killed by the Romans as part of the decrees against Jews immediately following the rebellion.9 The Midrash10 tells us that Rabbi Shimon learned from Rabbi Akiva in the city of Bnei Brak for 13 years, so this must have occurred before the rebellion—and again, the students who passed away had been Rabbi Akiva’s first group of students, prior to Rabbi Shimon.

Even if one were to argue that Rabbi Akiva was killed at a later time, it appears that he actually moved from the city of Bnei Brak to Usha approximately 47 years after the destruction of the Temple.11 Thus, he would still have had to have taught his “new” student Rabbi Shimon well before the rebellion of Bar Kochba.

Rabbi Yehuda Ben Bava Is Killed While Re-Ordaining Rabbi Meir

Rabbi Meir is listed as one of the five new students that Rabbi Akiva acquired. The Talmud relates that he was actually ordained by Rabbi Akiva. However, since he was extremely young at the time, his ordination wasn’t accepted by the masses and he was ultimately reordained years later once he was significantly older, when the elderly sage Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava gave up his life for ordination. This happened shortly after the rebellion was subdued and the Romans enacted decrees against ordination.

The Talmud relates:

One time the wicked kingdom of Rome issued decrees of religious persecution against the Jewish people with the aim of abolishing the chain of ordination and the authority of the sages. They said that anyone who ordains judges will be killed, and anyone who is ordained will be killed, and the city in which they ordain the judges will be destroyed, and the signs identifying the boundaries of the city in which they ordain judges will be uprooted. [These measures were intended to discourage the sages from performing or receiving ordination due to fear for the welfare of the local population].

What did Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava do? He went and sat between two large mountains, between two large cities, and between two Shabbat boundaries: Between Usha and Shefaram, [i.e., in a desolate place that was not associated with any particular city so that he not endanger anyone not directly involved] and there he ordained five elders. And they were: Rabbi Meir, and Rabbi Yehuda, and Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Yosei, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. Rav Avya adds that Rabbi Nechemya was also among those ordained.

When their enemies discovered them, Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava said to the newly ordained sages: My sons, run for your lives. They said to him: My teacher, what will be with you? Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava was elderly and unable to run. He said to them: In any case, I am cast before them like a stone that cannot be overturned; [even if you attempt to assist me I will not be able to escape due to my frailty, but if you do not escape without me you will also be killed]. People say about this incident: The Roman soldiers did not move from there until they had inserted three hundred iron spears [lunkhiyot] into him, making him appear like a sieve pierced with many holes.12

The implication is that Rabbi Meir, one of the students Rabbi Akiva acquired after his first group of students passed away, was himself ordained by Rabbi Akiva before the rebellion and this subsequent incident with Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava.

Bows and Bonfires

Perhaps this theory gained traction because it explained the custom of playing with bows and arrows and lighting bonfires on Lag BaOmer. However, these customs only started around the time that the Lag BaOmer celebration itself began to gain traction, which was due to the Kabbalists and the publication of the Zohar in the 13th century. After all, it is the Zohar that records Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s passing, as well as his instruction that it be a day of celebration. Thus, although the theory may sound enticing, there is no evidence that it is connected with the mourning or the celebration of Lag BaOmer.