The "Counting of the Omer," which is a mourning
period of sorts between Passover and Shavuot, originated
as an agricultural tradition but became associated with
tragic memories in Jewish history. Jews suspend the
mourning period for one day during the Omer. This day,
the thirty-third day of the Omer, is the Jewish holiday
of Lag B'Omer. In 2011, observance of Lag B'Omer will begin at sundown on May 21.
In the course of the long centuries of exile, the days
between Passover and Shavuot have on many occassions
been periods of distress and misfortune for the Jewish
people. For example, in the Middle Ages, the Crusader
massacre of the Jews of Jerusalem took place at this
time. In Roman times, according to tradition, a great
plague raged among the students of Rabbi Akiba during
this period, coming to an end on the eighteenth of Iyar,
which is Lag B'Omer. Another tradition concerns Shimon
Bar Yochai, a distinguished disciple of Rabbi Akiba.
Sentenced to death by the Romans for his participation
in a revolt against them, he hid in a cave and did not
come out until Lag B'Omer, when he learned that the
enemy had been defeated. Because of the connection to
Rabbi Akiba and his students, Lag B'Omer is known as
the Scholar's Festival, and Jewish children throughout
the world hold special celebrations to mark the occasion.
Many synagogues hold picnics and outings on Lag B'Omer,
with food, music, dance, sporting events (often in the
form of the competitive Maccabiah), and other festivals.
It is often the last social get-together before the
summer vacation. Jewish weddings are often held on Lag
B'Omer as well. Some synagogues hold a bonfire and cookout
on Lag B'Omer which often includes Israeli singing and
Israel, Lag B'Omer is a day for bonfire celebrations.
The most famous is held at the village of Meron, near
the northern city of Safed. Shimon Bar Yochai is said
to be buried there, and huge crowds gather at his tomb
for this very happy celebration. It is said that while
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was hiding in his cave he wrote
a famous holy book of mysticism called the Zohar. On
Lag B'Omer, many of the Hasidim study portions of the
Zohar during the special celebrations at Meron.
Finally, some synagogue schools have turned Lag B'Omer
into a day for honoring their religious school teachers.
Special assemblies and parties are held, and awards
are often given to the teachers.
The custom of children playing with a bow and arrow
on Lag B'Omer is traced to the legend that rainbows
did not appear during the lifetime of Shimon Bar Yochai
because of his saintliness. A rainbow ("Keshet"
in Hebrew) is a sign that the world would not be destroyed.
Since Bar Yochai was so good, there was no need for
the affirmation of the rainbow. The word for "bow"
in Hebrew is the same as the word for "rainbow,"
therefore children play with bows and arrows to remember
Bar Yochai. Other people associate the custom with the
traditions that the students of Rabbi Akiba deceived
the Romans by carrying bows and arrows to pretend that
they were hunting, when in fact they were studying Torah,
which the Romans had forbidden.
Since the days preceding Lag B'Omer were traditionally
considered days of mourning, and therefore haircutting
and shaving were not permitted, Lag B'Omer became a
time for youngsters to get their first haircut. Often
their parents plied them with wine and sweets to celebrate
this happy occasion. Since Lag B'Omer is a break from
the mourning, people also choose to have weddings then,
which are prohibited during the period from Pesach to
Some families use Lag B'Omer as the occasion for a family
outing or picnic.
Celebrations: A Jewish Holiday Handbook
By Ronald H. Isaacs and Kerry M. Olitzky. Ktav Publishing
House: Hoboken, New Jersey, 1994.