Lag Ba'Omer

The thirty-third day of the Omer is an occasion for happiness during an otherwise mournful period.

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But Rabbi Simeon's otherworldliness resonated with mystics in his own time and later, so much so that tradition ascribes to him the Zohar, the key work of the Kabbalah (although critical scholars attribute it to the 13th-century Spanish kabbalist Moses de Leon). And in Israel, on Lag Ba'Omer, people flock to the site of his tomb in the village of Meron in the Galilee, near Safed, where they light bonfires and sing kabbalistic hymns. Hasidic Jews follow the custom of bringing their three-year-old sons to Meron to have their hair cut for the first time. (The custom of not cut­ting the child's hair until his third birthday is probably an extension of the law that forbids picking the fruits of a newly planted tree during its first three years.)

Unrelated to Rabbi Simeon, the kabbalists also give a mystical interpretation to the Omer period as a time of spiritual cleansing and preparation for receiving the Torah on Shavuot. The days and weeks of counting, they say, represent various combinations of the sefirot, the divine emanations, whose contemplation ultimately leads to purity of mind and soul. The somberness of this period reflects the seriousness of its spiritual pursuits.

Finally, on yet another tack, some authorities attribute the joy of Lag Ba'Omer to the belief that the manna that fed the Israelites in the desert first appeared on the eighteenth of Iyar.

Though its origins are uncertain, Lag Ba'Omer has become a minor holiday. (For Sephardim, the holiday is the day after Lag Ba'Omer.) Schoolchildren picnic and play outdoors with bows and arrows--a possible reminder of the war battles of Akiva's students--and in Israel plant trees. And every year numerous couples wed at this happy time, oblivious to Rabbi Akiva or Simeon bar Yohai, manna or mysticism.

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Francine Klagsbrun

Francine Klagsbrun is a writer, editor and columnist. She has also devoted her energies to the Jewish Publication Society, the Jewish Museum, the JTS Library, the American Jewish Committee, and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.