What do mourning, bonfires, haircuts, parades, and bows and arrows have in common?
The answer is Lag BaOmer celebrations! Lag BaOmer is the 33rd day of counting the Omer, which begins on the second day of Pesach and culminates in Shavuot (Feast of Weeks/Pentecost). Lag BaOmer gets its name from the Hebrew letters ל (lamed) and ג (gimel) which together make up the Hebrew number 33. Several different events are commemorated on the 33rd day of the Omer. Two of the most famous are 1) the end of the plague that killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students and 2) the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, revealing the deepest secrets of kabbalah.
The Babylonian Talmud (Yevamot 62b) explains that 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s men died because they did not treat each other with respect, but does not state the day that the plague ended. The origins of this plague ending on Lag BaOmer are shrouded in mystery. Various Jewish sources in the Middle Ages state that the plague stopped on this day, but their sources no longer exist. Nevertheless, the custom of mourning from the second day of Pesach until Lag BaOmer is traced to the plague being stopped on this day. During the 32 days of counting the omer, religious Jewish men do not shave or cut their hair, do not listen to or make music, do not buy new clothing, and do not hold weddings. As a result of the mourning period being lifted, men shave, people get haircuts, new clothes are bought, and weddings take place. In addition, children often shoot bow and arrows in commemoration of Akiva’s men who participated in Bar Kochva’s revolt against Rome.
The death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, one of Rabbi Akiva’s students, is the second reason given for the commemoration of Lag BaOmer. Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai claimed to be the author of the Zohar, a foundational kabbalistic writing. Rabbi bar Yohai’s spirituality and otherworldliness resonated with Jewish mystics of his time and afterwards, who marked the day of his death with bonfires, parades, trips to Meron, a city in northern Israel, where three-year-old sons have their hair cut for the first time and people plant trees.
Among other things, children often shoot bow and arrows in commemoration of Rabbi Akiva’s men who participated in Bar Kochva’s revolt against Rome. Another other event commemorated by some on Lag BaOmer is the belief that manna first fell for Israel in the wilderness on the 18th of Iyar.
Now we come to the question of Lag BaOmer’s significance to Messianic Jews. Should Messianic Jewish even celebrate Lag BaOmer considering its lack of solid historical basis and firm connection with Jewish mysticism? I used to hold that Messianic Jews should abstain from celebrating Lag BaOmer because of these two reasons—that is, until I took a class at MJTI where we discussed the various Jewish holidays, their reasons and their celebrations. Because MJTI allows and encourages open discussion, not everyone agreed. In fact, it was another student’s comments which provoked me to rethink my opinion.
I now conclude that Messianic Jews should be able to celebrate Lag BaOmer as well as any of the customs old and new as long as they abstain from observances where prayers are offered appealing to the merit of Shimon bar Yochai. Additionally, it would be good for Messianic Jewish leaders to teach their congregations about the mystical aspect of Lag BaOmer and to distance themselves from it. Such an understanding of the holiday incorporates the importance of Messianic Jews celebrating the holiday along with the rest of Klal Israel while at the same time distancing from elements that conflict with belief in Yeshua as the Messiah. Thus, as in many other aspects of Messianic Jewish life, we balance the importance of celebration the customs and traditions of Klal Israel with Yeshua and his teachings.
This post was written by MJTI Academic Dean Rabbi Dr. Vered Hillel. For more articles by her, read her extravagant Shavuot cheesecake recipe, her experience celebrating pesach under lockdown, or Scapegoats, Jews, and Judaism.