Thursday, April 25, 2013

Time to Celebrate Again on Lag B'Omer: April 28, 2013

Nadene Goldfoot                                                                        

We have so many holidays in Judaism.  It took me to move to Israel to really get into all of them as when I grew up, Chabad was not around to instruct us or to get the ball rolling in Portland.  Lag B'Omer is a great festive holiday and a wonderful time to teach our history through fun and games.  We celebrate this year on April 28th, a Sunday with great festivities.  .

The background of this history starts between Passover and Shavuot, the Exodus from Egypt of the 600,000 with Moses (1391-1271 BCE)  and the time he gave us the Torah on Mt. Sinai.  During this period we count with pieces of barley in Sefirah  counters  or mark the days off on the calendar till we reach Shavuot. There are 49 days (7 full weeks-7X7=49). What a great way to teach children their times tables.   This begins on the 2nd night of Passover and ends with Shavuot.   Receiving the Torah is another joyous holiday, of course.  Mysticism comes in during the counting with  saying one of the psalms that is made up of 49 words, each standing for one day.  Also, one of the lines in the psalm has 49 letters, again each representing one day.

The time of counting the Omer is a time of semi-mourning.  Weddings are not to take place in this period, nor a time to get your haircut.  The reason is that we are to think about our ancestors and us approaching Mount Sinai and receiving the revelation of G-d as Moses did. We think of the thunder and lightning, the shofar blast and the pillar of cloud, and an awestruck nation that we belong to receiving the Ten commandments.  We visualize Moses ascending to heaven as its intermediary receiving these words.  We might also think of King David, the sweet singer of Israel whose quill wrote the longing and achievements and heartbreak and inspiration with his psalms for millions of people from shepherd tents in the desert to penthouse towers in  teeming cities.  It evokes the goal of bringing about the human manifestation of "Let there be light !"  

 It's also a time to remember the horrible plague which killed many of Rabbi Akiva's students.
Rabbi Ben Joseph Akiva lived from 50 to 135 CE.  An uneducated man, he was helped by his wife Rachel, daughter of Kalba Sabbua, a rich man,  and started learning at age 40.  He became very interested in mystical matters.  He has been regarded as the greatest scholar of his time.  The plague hit his students, killing many of them  and finally ended on the 33rd day of the Omer period which was on Iyyar 18.  So it's called the Scholar's Feast.  Lag B'Omer falls on the 33rd day of the period of counting of the Omer.

This meant that this holiday was a day off from school.  The custom was that boys would play mock battles with bows and arrows like the people back in those days.  In Israel, the custom is to light bonfires at night.  Midnight is often the time to do this

People make a pilgrimage to the tomb at Mt. Meron of Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai who supposedly died on this day transmitting his mystical lore.  Rabbi Simeon studied in the academy that was founded by Rabbi Zakhai, and his teacher was none other than Rabbi Akiva.

The Roman Emperor, Hadrian, shut down the Talmudic academies and it was against the law to study Torah.  That didn't stop Rabbi Akiva.  He kept on teaching publicly and Simeon was his best pupil, staying right with him.  Finally Rabbi Akiva was arrested and put in prison.  Simeon was determined to keep on studying so visited him in prison, getting his instructions anyway until Rabbi Akiva was condemned and was killed by the system.  Rabbi means "teacher" and this man died a martyr.   What happened to Hadrian was that he died in great pain and his decrees stopped being enforced so strongly.

Rabbi Simeon and his son had to hide out in a cave, though, for studying the Torah was still against the law and the story is that they lived on carobs and water.

In modern Israeli culture, the holiday has been reinterpreted as a commemoration of the Bar Kokhba Revolt against the Roman Empire, the final one in 133 CE when Jews suffered 580,000 Jewish casualties besides those that died of hunger and disease.  That must have matched the 600,000 that entered Israel with Moses.

This rite of Springtime is a happy joyous time.  It is a day of outings, and the prohibitions relating to mourning are lifted.  I notice the prominence and accent on education with this holiday.  That's what our holidays are all about.  It's a time to remember our past history and how we got to this point in time.  How else have we lasted for about  3,213 years and have students continue to study our Torah (The 5 books of Moses--Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) ?

Resource: The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia: Lag B'Omer
The Jewish Catalog by Richard Siegel, Michael Strassfeld, Ssharon Strassfeld
Tanach, the Stone Edition, ArtScroll Series

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