The Joyous Holiday of Lag BaOmer

This year, on May 12, Jews will be celebrating the joyous holiday of Lag BaOmer.

typewrite with lag baomer typed out
Photo by Marco Verch (trendingtopics). CC BY 2.0.

What is Lag BaOmer?

Gematria, or Jewish numerology, is related to the philosophy of number and mathematics. ‘Lag’ stands for the Hebrew letters lamed — numerical value of 30 — and gimel — numerical value of 3 — with a sum of 33; this marks the 33 days of the Counting of the Omer in the Hebrew calendar. The Omer was a religious rite observed in the Temple on the second night of Passover.

There are some similarities between Lag BaOmer (sometimes spelled Lag B’omer) and the current quarantine and social distancing necessitated by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Rabbi Akiba and the Plague

The 33rd day after the beginning of Passover is celebrated as Lag BaOmer, because it was on that day that the deaths of Rabbi Akiba’s disciples ceased.

According to the Talmud, in the 2nd century CE, there was a plague that killed 40,000 disciples of the great Jewish mystic, Rabbi Akiba. The Talmud shares that this plague is a punishment for their not showing proper Jewish ethical respect, or derekh eretz (proper behavior and manners), towards each other, and for their lack of manifest proper ahavas yisrael (love of Israel) and love of all creatures (kavod ha-briut). Because of this tragic event, the weeks between Passover and Shavuot are observed as a mourning period, not only for the ethical failings of Rabbi Akiba’s disciples in the interhuman (bain adam li havaro/das zwischenmentshliche) and their lack of care and loving kindness (hesed) for each other, but also the destruction of the Temple that Rabbi Akiba merited to have witnessed. Significantly, it was on Lag BaOmer that Rabbi Akiba’s disciples ceased dying from the plague.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai

Rabbi Akiba had five disciples who actually survived the plague. One of them, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, also known as the Rashbi, was a great Jewish mystic who eventually went into a kind of quarantine by hiding in a cave to escape persecution by the Romans. In the cave, he lived ascetically, eating only carob, with his son to whom he transmitted esoteric mystical teachings of Kabbalah. It was on Lag BaOmer that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai felt that it was safe to leave the cave after many years; many years later, the Rashbi would pass away on Lag BaOmer, making that day his yahrtzeit, or anniversary of his death, a day of commemoration in Judaism. Thus, Lag BaOmer is considered a day of Kabbalistic significance in the Jewish calendar.

rashbi's cave
The site some identify as the Rashbi’s cave. Photo by Deror_avi.  CC-BY-SA 4.0

Beyond “Business as Usual”

Perhaps the being stuck at home now will spark us to devote more time to the quest for intellectual, spiritual, and moral virtue, rather than assuming a “business as usual” attitude.

Jacob Richman has organized links related to Lag BaOmer that you can explore from home this year, and the Chabad website offer a simple, introductory article on Lag BaOmer. As the power of music in the Jewish arts testifies, song epitomizes the transcendence of the spiritual over the physical, so I hope you may enjoy some music associated with Lag BaOmer, too.

This year, Lag BaOmer falls on May 12, which is coincidentally close to May 15, the target date to begin to lift some of the stay-at-home measures in New York. May we hope that, with the approach of Lag BaOmer, the tide of the novel coronavirus begins to turn.

This article was contributed by David B. Levy, Chief Librarian at the Lander College for Women