Day 33 of the Omer

33: GOOD

The thirty-third word in the Torah
is "good." After each act
of speaking the universe into being

God paused and saw the good.
Light is good. Darkness: good.
Also the balance between the two.

Every geological feature.
Every seed and spore and fern.
The dinosaurs were good, until

they weren't. The Great Auk,
the Atlas Bear...God must spend
eternity reciting I love

what comes and I love what goes.
That every story has an ending
must also be good, at least

from God's vantage where each drop
rejoining the river at the base
of the waterfall is coming home.



Today is the 33rd day of the Omer, making four weeks and five days of the Omer. Today is the 33rd day of our 49-day journey from Pesach to Shavuot, liberation to revelation.

Today is Lag B'Omer, a minor festival within the Omer count. The syllable lag, in Hebrew, is spelled לג –– the number 33. (So Lag B'Omer just means "The 33rd Day of the Omer.") You can read more about this festival in my Lag B'Omer category.

I learned the teaching about the 33rd word of the Torah from a Hasidic text by the Bnei Yissaschar, and it inspired today's poem.

Happy Lag B'Omer!

BonfireHey, did you know that today is a Jewish holiday? Today is the 33rd day of the Omer. Since Hebrew numerals are also letters, today is called Lag B'Omer -- the letters for 33 spell out the word לג or lag.

Today is the yahrzeit, the death-anniversary, of the sage Shimon bar Yochai. He lived during the first century of the Common Era, and Jewish tradition says that he wrote the Zohar (the central work of Jewish mysticism.)

Tradition says he brought down the wisdom of the Zohar, which was passed-on orally until it was finally committed to print by Moshe de Leon in 13th-century Spain. Those with a more historical-critical bent might suggest instead that de Leon wrote the Zohar in an intentionally old-fashioned Aramaic. Either way, today is a day when we cultivate gratitude for the Zohar's spiritual fire.

"Zohar" means "splendor" or "radiance." It's a source of great light, in the sense of illumination and wisdom and insight. Maybe that's part of why we traditionally light bonfires on Lag b'Omer -- to send literal sparks flying upward as a reminder of the intellectual and spiritual sparks of our mystical tradition and its wisdom.

For more on this holiday, you can check out my Lag B'Omer category. I'm still quite fond of my 2009 post The bonfire of the expansive heart, which offers a few different classical interpretations of Lag b'Omer (the end of a plague which had been caused by Rabbi Akiva's students not respecting one another; the end of a Roman massacre of Jews during the bar Kokhba revolt),  and then focuses on a teaching from Rabbi Zvi Elimelech of Dinov which offers some beautiful thoughts about what it means to have a good heart.

May we all experience the Omer as a time for cultivating and expressing the best of our hearts, and a time for (as Rabbi Zvi Elimelech writes) "bringing together opposites in friendship." Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so!

Lag b'Omer at Fenway Park

My Lag b'Omer (what's Lag b'Omer? glad you asked: read Plagues? Rebellions? May Day? Lag b'Omer) began with a barbecue at the synagogue which also offered an opportunity to mark the almost-end of our Hebrew school year. Drew ran around happily and ate bits of hot dog (though was most excited about the blueberries and the potato chips), and the skies graciously consented not to rain.

Then I went to Boston, where I first had the profound pleasure of serving on a beit din and welcoming a new Jew into this new chapter of his life. It was a beautiful ceremony, and I came away deeply moved. (Also, it was my first chance to sign a rabbinic document with my new title; I have to admit, that felt pretty good!) And then I went with my dear friend Reb Jeff to Fenway Park, where we stood in the will call line at Gate B.

Gate B ticket window.

Some of the people standing in line had reserved tickets in advance. Others were active duty military. And we were there because we're ordained clergy. The Red Sox have a special pass program for clergy; with such a pass in hand, one can show up 90 minutes before a game, and if there are standing-room tickets available, one can purchase them for $10. Red Sox lore holds that the program was established because Tom Yawkey was friendly with the local Catholic priests, and used to give them free game tickets; after a while, Protestant clergy groused that they deserved the same treatment, and the Red Sox clergy pass program was born.

Standing room only.

We got to Fenway early enough to snag two great standing room seats on the third-base side of the field. (What made them great was the wooden bar running behind the last row of stadium seating, so we had something to lean on as we watched.)

Red Sox v. Cubs. With zen gardeners.

It was a great game. We were there early enough to eat dinner (standing up) while the Cubs got in some batting practice; we watched the ground crew groom the field for play (the guys who smooth the sand always remind me of zen gardeners doing the meditative work of raking sand); and we watched Tim Wakefield pitch a gorgeous game, his first win of the season.

We left during the 8th inning -- regretfully -- because we had a three-hour drive to get home to the Berkshires. And yeah, I'll admit that today I'm dragging a little bit, even though Ethan got up with Drew this morning and let me sleep in. But it was totally worth it to be able to catch a Red Sox game with Jeff. What a perfect way to close out my Lag B'Omer.

The bonfire of the expansive heart

I ought to be lighting a bonfire tonight, since we've entered the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer. In Hebrew, the number 33 is spelled lamed-gimel; the two letters together are pronounced Lag, and the 33rd day of the Omer is called Lag b'Omer. And on Lag b'Omer, people light bonfires. Why? Well, it depends on who you ask.

One interpretation of the chronology in Torah holds that on this date, manna first began to fall from the heavens for the Israelites in the desert. Lag B'Omer (celebrated with picnics and rejoicing) can be understood as a commemoration of that happy miracle.

Another story (found in the Talmud) holds that 24,000 of the students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva died from a plague during the counting of the Omer because they failed to give one another proper respect (or, in Reb Zalman's interpretation, they failed to see the chen, divine grace, in one another.) Many traditional Jews observe limited mourning customs during the first 32 days of the Omer, in remembrance of that plague; Lag b'Omer marks the day when the plague came to its end, and hence, we celebrate.

An alternate interpretation holds that the students died as part of the Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome. We spend the first 32 days of the Omer mourning their deaths...until the 33rd day of the Omer, when we rejoice that the massacre finally ended. (The killing may have come to an end, but the outcome of the war was pretty bleak; the name Judea was erased from Roman maps, the study of Torah was prohibited, and Jews were barred from entering Jerusalem. Oy.) Fearing of reprisal from Roman authorities, the sages of the Talmud didn't want to mention the failed rebellion by name, so spoke of a "plague" instead.

Some Jews celebrate the yarzheit (death-anniversary) of the sage Shimon bar Yochai on this day; he was a student of Rabbi Akiva's, and it is to him that the Zohar -- germinal work of Jewish mysticism -- is traditionally attributed. In this understanding, we light bonfires to symbolize the way his teachings illuminated the night.

It interests me that these are the stories we tell about this minor holiday. Today is a day for remembering how important it is that we see the grace in one another, and honor one another's learning. It's a day to remember the dangers of following messianic figures into violent rebellion. And it's a day for celebrating illumination: not just the literal illumination of burning sticks and logs, but the metaphysical and spiritual illumination embodied in the wisdom of Torah and the Jewish mystical tradition.

In honor of that tradition, I want to offer a Hasidic teaching which relates to Lag B'Omer. It has nothing to do with the plague, or the rebellion, or anyone's yarzheit, but it's my favorite teaching about the holiday, hands down. This comes from a Hasidic rabbi called the B'nei Yisaschar (R' Zvi Elimelech of Dinov.) (You can find a version of it in this post The illumination of a good heart; I've learned it from my teacher Reb Elliot.) It's about the importance of having a good heart.

Continue reading "The bonfire of the expansive heart" »

Plagues? Rebellions? May Day? Lag b'Omer.

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...

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Lag B'Omer

So today was Lag B'Omer, the Thirty-Third Day of the Omer (the Hebrew number thirty-three is denoted lamed-gimel, which spells lag). It started last night at sundown, and ended at sunset today.

Custom has it that no weddings take place during the Counting of the Omer, because of a plague that struck the disciples of Rabbi Akiva during this period. The exception is on Lag B'Omer, when weddings do take place, because on that day during the plague, nobody died.

Jeff explained this on Friday night at services, before we counted the Omer that night. First he joked that only Jews could make a holiday of a day when nobody died. (We laughed.) And then he observed that, in this day and age, when so many of us begin our mornings by turning on the radio or checking news online to see how many casualties the Iraq war has generated overnight, we might find ourselves identifying with the impulse to celebrate such a day. (We weren't laughing any more.)

Here's hoping for a day when we turn on the radio, or check our news aggregators, and don't hear a single thing about Iraq, Israel/Palestine, or anywhere else in the world where conflicts have been brewing -- not because the world isn't paying attention, but because the killing has finally stopped.