Today is Lag Ba’Omer, a very uncreatively-named Jewish holiday (Lag or ל״ג is simply the way to write 33 in Hebrew), which falls on the 33rd day of the Omer– the time that bridges the divide between Pesach and Shavu’ot. Whereas many Jews observe a variety of mourning customs during the Omer (no music, no shaving, etc) Lag Ba’Omer has a very different vibe: children in the streets shooting bows and arrows, people giving each other haircuts on mountaintops, and large and ubiquitous bonfires. It’s quite a sharp dissonance, especially in Israeli communities where Lag Ba’Omer is a raucous, wild holiday. And where does this special madness of the otherwise-insignificant 33rd day of the Omer come from? Well, like many great inventions, it comes from a mistake.
The festivities we celebrate are meant to be in honour of the Yom Hillula (AKA ‘yahrzeit’) of R’ Shimon bar Yochai, a 2nd century rabbi and key figure in the creation of Judaism as we know it. However, he didn’t actually die today (or at least, probably not). In the original, handwritten document that describes the custom of R’ Isaac Luria (16th c.) to visit R’ Shimon’s grave, it says Lag Ba’Omer was “יום שמחת רשב”י” — the day of happiness of R’ Shimon Bar Yochai (for being saved from the ‘plague’ – or more likely, the Romans). The scribe copied it down as the abbreviated יום שמ’ רשב”י” which further was modified by the publishers to יום שמת רשב”י”, the day R’ Shimon Bar Yochai died. So, R’ Shimon Bar Yochai was saved on Lag BaOmer from the ‘plague’ (meaning he wasn’t killed that day), but there isn’t any historical record that he died on Lag BaOmer.
Regardless of the potentially mistaken origin of the holiday– Lag Ba’Omer is still an awful lot of fun. And even if R’ Shimon didn’t die today, there’s still a lot from his life to celebrate. One of my favourite stories of R’ Shimon bar Yochai is the origin of the tradition that he authored the Zohar (which he didn’t).
According to the story, R’ Shimon got himself in trouble because he mocked the Romans and their occupation of Judea. The Talmud tells that he was walking with two other rabbis, Yehudah ben Ilai and Yose ben Chalafta. Yehudah praised the Romans– acclaiming how they constructed bridges, aqueducts, and bridges. Yose said nothing, but Shimon mocked these engineering marvels, claiming the Romans only made them for their own self-interest. To quote the famous Life of Brian sketch, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?!’
The Talmud tells us that the Romans overhead this conversation and as a result, promoted Yehudah and exiled Shimon. To escape the death penalty, he and his son hid in a cave for 13 years! All good heroes have a cave in their origin story, after all. When, after 13 years, the Roman governor died and he was free to leave, R’ Shimon emerged having gained enlightenment– becoming a famous pupil of R’ Akiva and a teacher in his own right, and being held by our tradition to be the founder of Jewish mysticism and the author of the Zohar.
In typical fashion, the life (and death) of R’ Shimon bar Yochai is shrouded in mystery, confusion, and a fair amount of manuscript errors. Yet there’s something special that has emerged from all this to become Lag Ba’Omer. The original text seems to imply that today is the day that the ‘plague’ of Shimon’s arrest warrant was ended, and he emerged from the cave. If that’s so– then the practices (bonfires, archery, celebration) make a lot more sense than if today is the day of this sage’s death.
I for one am very happy to joyfully commemorate the end of that plague, and others too– the plagues of foreign oppression, of unjust laws, of religious persecution. The years of R’ Shimon’s life following his experience in the cave have given us many central tenets of our Jewish faith, and that is certainly worth celebrating.
Lag Sameach, and Shabbat Shalom,