Lag Ba’omer

I have to admit, I was very, very confused by Lag Ba’omer this year because I realized all of a sudden that I had no clue what the holiday’s about.

I was blissfully unaware of my ignorance until Rafi, who actually understands what’s going on in gan this year, came home with the story about Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son hiding in a cave from the Romans, studying Torah and eating carob to sustain themselves.  (He didn’t learn the part about how he came out of the cave and was so incensed by people breaking Shabbat that he burned them up with one look.) Now I’ve heard that story, but not in connection to this holiday. What in the world is going on here?

Rafi also told me about a song he learned about Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, I looked it up and found almost the exact same song, only it was about Bar Kochba (the leader of a major but failed rebellion against the Romans during the time of Rabbi Akiva)! So, is the holiday about Bar Yochai or Bar Kochba? Now I was truly puzzled.

I have to admit I only vaguely remember learning about Lag Ba’omer in school. If it’s a minor holiday in Israel, it’s especially minor in America. We had the most awesome color wars, which were valuable in their own right (to name a few reasons why, we wrote songs and cheers in Hebrew, and they built school community because the teams were multi-grade). The color wars basically spoke to the “field day” theme, which in Israel is expressed by archery and bonfires. In addition, I remember learning about a connection between Bar Kochba and Lag Ba’omer, but upon examination, that makes no sense at all! Not the kind of sense that you expect Jewish holidays to make, with their layers of meaning.

So, I looked to Wikipedia for answers…and found the source of my confusion.

Lag Ba’omer actually has two different meanings, depending on who you talk to. For the religious, it’s the hilulah or mystical memorial/yahrzeit celebration of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, also known by the acronym “Rashbi” (not to be confused with Rashi, the 12th-century Torah commentator). The Rashbi is the purported author of the Zohar (kabbalistic text) and one of Rabbi Akiva’s few remaining students after the plague that killed them, which stopped on Lag Ba’omer. (Rafi is at a religious preschool, which explains why he learned this version.)

For the secular, it’s a holiday about Bar Kochba. The meaning of Lag Ba’omer was reinterpreted in the early days of the country to celebrate Judean victories against the Romans–even though in the end, the Bar Kochba rebellion failed and had absolutely devastating consequences for Judea. The hero Bar Kochba spoke–and still speaks–to the Israeli idea of war heroes fighting for the nation’s right to exist independently. It’s kind of like the secular Chanukah song that includes the line, “A great miracle didn’t happen here,” that is to say, we won with our might and bravery rather than with God’s miraculous intervention.

In honor of Lag Ba’omer, Rafi has Monday off from gan. (Lag Ba’omer is Sunday, but the holiday celebrations are deferred to Sunday night and Monday to avoid desecration of the Shabbat.)  I’m told the day off is because a lot of families journey to Meron, the site of Rashbi’s tomb, for the hilulah celebration there. It involves lighting torches at his grave to symbolize the mystical light that he gave to the world. As I have gathered, that is the origin of the Israeli tradition of lighting bonfires on Lag Ba’omer.

I was fascinated to find all of this out! Rafi and I have actually been to Rashbi’s tomb, with Fulbright on the trip to the North…no pictures of us there because I didn’t realize the significance of where we were.


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