Plagues? Rebellions? May Day? Lag b'Omer.
May 03, 2007
Okay, show of hands, folks: how many of you have any idea what Lag b'Omer is (without clicking on that convenient link)? Those who grew up with the holiday don't get to answer; what I'm curious about is, how many of us who didn't grow up observing Lag b'Omer have any idea what the holiday means?
If you're having that slightly squirmy feeling of having forgotten something you're sure you knew when you were twelve, here's the explanation I offered my mother this afternoon:
Literally, the name means "the 33rd day of the Omer." -- remember, "counting the Omer" means counting the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot. Once upon a time, we counted the days between spring planting and spring harvest. More recently, we think in terms of counting the days between liberation and revelation, because we understand freedom not only as freedom-from but also freedom-toward.
In traditional Judaism, the counting of the Omer is a kind of semi-mourning period, and Lag b'Omer marks either an end to, or a pause in, the mourning. Some say we're mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva, who were killed by a plague because they didn't treat one another with respect; the plague ended on the 33rd day of the Omer. Today, children observe Lag b'Omer by playing with bows and arrows, a way of remembering the students who fought amongst themselves.
Some say that what it's really about is, Rabbi Akiva supported the Bar Kokhba revolt against Roman occupation. Many of his students followed him in supporting that revolt, and were killed. The so-called "plague" which ended on Lag b'Omer is a euphemism for the ill-fated rebellion. (In that case, kids play with bows and arrows as a symbolic re-enactment of the fight against Roman oppression.)
Still other people say we celebrate because Lag b'Omer marks the yarzheit of Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai, one of Rabbi Akiva's students who did survive the plague, or the revolt, or whatever --he was the ostensible author of The Zohar. And still other people say that the manna which fell from heaven during the Israelites' wanderings in the desert began to fall on the 18th of Iyar, which is the 33rd day of the Omer, so we're celebrating that.
Oh, and in case you've lost track of the days of the Omer, today is the 30th day, which means Lag b'Omer is this Sunday. One way or another, there's apparently no consensus on what the holiday means. My handy copy of Michael Strassfeld's The Jewish Holidays (have I recommended that book lately?) offers all kinds of conflicting opinions on the nature and duration of the mourning period, and hence on the nature of Lag b'Omer as a break in the mourning. And, of course, in liberal Judaism the days of the Omer aren't observed as a mourning period at all, which makes Lag b'Omer a different kind of holiday altogether.
Here's another interpretation -- one I quite like: Lag b'Omer can be understood as a kind of Jewish May Day. "There's an old German and English custom of shooting bows and arrows at demons on May Day," Strassfeld points out, which does seem strangely kin to the bow-and-arrow theme of Lag b'Omer as it's traditionally celebrated. And Rabbi Everett Gendler -- one of the rabbis whose commentary flows down the side margins of The Jewish Holidays -- offers the following:
For more than a decade, we (my wife, our daughters, and I) have held an annual May Day - Lag b'Omer celebration up in our small hayfield. Selecting a Sunday more or less near both dates -- with, of course, allowance for New England's inclement spring weather -- we've invited friends and neighbors to join us for a variety of outdoor activities. Most distinctive is a ritual procession around the periphery of the field, each person carrying some freshly cut winter rye, while at the head of the procession is carried a recently-cut, eighteen-foot-high tree with eighteen ribbons stapled to it near the top (the chai motif.) Also at the head of the procession is carried a keter -- a crown for the May/Omer pole -- constructed earlier in the week from freshly cut branches. Attatched to it are brightly-colored pieces of fabric inscribed with appropriate verses from the Bible, from Chaucer, or from e.e. cummings, or whatever choices our fantasy may dictate that particular year...
I love the idea of celebrating May Day and Lag b'Omer together. Both festivals are often observed with bonfires, picnics, and outdoor merriment (the First Jewish Catalogue calls Lag b'Omer "a day of outings and midnight bonfires," which sounds pretty consonant with May Day celebrations, to me.) Certainly in this season, at this latitude, we're all eager to find a reason to savor the great outdoors. It's been a few years since we and our local circle of friends last celebrated May Day, but I think next year we might just have to establish a Lag b'Omer / May Day tradition...