I’ve heard something about taking a break during the counting of the Omer, Lag something. What are we taking a break from and why?
Falling behind in my understanding
My dearest Hindmost,
Ah the joys of symbolism. First, lag b’omer literally means “the 33rd day of the omer”. Lag comes from the combination of the Hebrew letters lamed and gimmel, which symbolize 30+3.
The holiday in not biblically based. Instead it commemorates events that occurred during the time of the great Talmudic scholar Rabbi Akiba. (50-137 CE) Rabbi Akiba had a school which had thousands of students.
According to the Talmud, for more than four weeks a great plague raged through the area and many died.Tanta Golda’s sources differ on this next point, but it would seem that somewhere between 10 and 24 thousand of his students died during this time. Oy! How do you bury 6,000 people a week? But I ramble, miraculously the plague ended on - you guessed it - the 33rd day of the counting of the omer!
(Now of course, why wouldn’t there be another opinion - there are those who say that the students were actually kill by the Romans who were a little upset by the Bar Kokhba revolt.)
So my questioning one, t the counting of the Omer is treated as days of mourning and as such, no weddings or celebrations take place and men do not cut their hair. However, Lag B’Omer is seen as an acceptable time to take a break from mourning and celebrate the joyful end of the plague!
Several traditions have developed over the centuries, including the building of bonfires (very popular in Israel), picnics, sporting games - especially archery, and traditional first hair cuts for young boys.
The bonfires apparently have their roots in honoring one of Rabbi Akiba’s few remaining students, Shimon bar Yochai, who was said to go on to be the ‘light of the Torah’.
I’ve been asked, why do some traditional Jews wait until a boy is 3 to give him his first hair cut? Once again we look to symbolism: The Torah says that if you plant a tree, all fruits which grow during the first three years are orlah -- off-limits (Leviticus 19:23) and "A person is like the tree of a field..." (Deut. 20:19). So, if we continue this chain of thought, a child - a tree of the field - should not be plucked until he is three. (Tanta Golda has no idea if this applies to girls as well, but since their mention in the Talmud is limited, I would say not.)
In the Hasidic community, the upsherin (hair cutting ceremony) marks a male child's entry into the formal educational system and the commencement of Torah study. A yarmulke and tzitzis will now be worn, and the child will be taught to pray and read the Hebrew alphabet. The joyous time when we are thinking of the scholar Akiba to many seems a fitting time for this ceremony.
I hope you no longer lag behind the other scholars in your knowledge of Lag B’Omer, which this year is on May 21-22. TG