This holiday celebrates the death of the Rabbi Shimon bar Yochnai, the author of the Zohar. The Zohar is a central text to Kabbalah, one of the forms of Jewish mysticism. It is a commentary on the Torah, taking years of study to be able to properly interpret. His writings were both a commentary and creation. Centuries of knowledge and wisdom have stemmed from his works, so it is no wonder that the day of his death is remembered with joy.
Lag B'Omer (or Lag Baomer) falls on the 18th of Iyar, hence the name. The number 18 correlates to the letters lamed and gimmel, making the sound Lag. It is called “b’omer” as it is that day of the counting of the Omer.
Upon his passing, Rabbi Shimon instructed his disciples to celebrate his death as a day of joy and celebration. It is not just to honor his life as a righteous person, but to honor the spiritual, mystical aspects of the Torah.
But, there is another story for the creation of the holiday: "Rabbi Akiva, the Talmud tells us, had 24,000 students who died from a terrible plague all in one year during the Omer period. This plague was sent by God to punish the students for not showing each other proper respect. The Meiri relates a tradition that says this plague ended on Lag BaOmer." (1)
However, this is often interpreted as a euphemism for a great war, as Rabbi Akiva and many of his students were involved in the Bar Kochba revolt, a rebellion against violent Roman rule in the year 132 C.E.
So, whatever reason for the holiday, we are given a time to celebrate joyously, with some pretty incredible traditions.
In some communities, it is honorary to light candles in honor of Rabbi Shimon. However, this is a time where we honor those who brought great mysticism into our world. Take the day to honor people who inspired you, taught you, guided you, and shone a light on your mystical practice, passed on or still on this plane. This holiday centers deeply around the relationship between student and teacher, so take a bit of time to think of the teachers (official or unofficial) that you have had throughout your life.
Bonfires are lit for numerous reasons: to honor the light Rabbi Shimon brought to the world, honoring the ever-burning mysticism of the Torah, honor the souls of the Jews around the world, and more.
Fire is a deeply important part of Jewish rituals, most often found through candle lighting, but there is a certain magic to that of a bonfire. While we are currently unable to meet and celebrate with large crowds, most often we celebrate Lag B'Omer with great fanfare, joy, and lots, and lots of people. Sitting around a bonfire, you witness the flames, feel the heat, experience the joy.
This year, as you sit by the fire, ask yourself what you burn for? What are the things you long for? What do you strive for? As the flames burn higher, ask yourself: what is your higher purpose? What higher goal do you have for yourself? Watch the logs that the fire stems from: what are the foundations of your path? Your journey? What is the fuel for your own passion?
Lastly, be safe as you burn things! Here is guide to building a fire, courtesy of Smoky the Bear.
First, make sure you have a source of water, a bucket, and shovel nearby at all times.
Gather three types of wood from the ground. ...
Loosely pile a few handfuls of tinder in the center of the fire pit.
Add kindling in one of these methods:
Cross: Crisscross the kindling over the tinder.
Log Cabin: Surround your pile of tinder with kindling, stacking pieces at right angles. Top the “cabin” with the smallest kindling.
Ignite the tinder with a match or lighter.
Wait until the match is cold, and discard it into the fire.
Add more tinder as the fire grows.
Blow lightly at the base of the fire.
Add kindling and fuel, the larger firewood, to keep the fire going.
Bows and Arrows
One seemingly strange tradition is that of bows and arrows. On Lag B'Omer, children (and fun adults) take part in running around with (safe) bows and arrows, playing pretend.
It is said that this tradition began with the battle and Rabbi Akiva. Though his students were not warriors, they chose to join in the fight and used bows and arrows to defend themselves.
This is also, however, a deeper Kabbalistic meaning. Rabbi Shimon was one of the first rabbis to teach Kabbalah on a greater scale, to many students rather than a few apprentices or recipients at a time. His works to teach Kabbalah brought forth a light of mysticism not yet seen before. According to the Rabbi Schneerson, "the bow-and-arrow symbolizes the power of inwardness — the power unleashed by the mystic soul of Torah." (2).
Spending the Day in Nature
The holiday is often spent outdoors with parades, bonfires, singing, and dancing. While the holiday centers heavily on spirituality, there is a definite appreciation for the natural world around us.
Eat Traditional Foods
Carobs are a food heavily associated with Lag B'Omer, as while Rabbi Shimon and his son were in exile, they hid in a cave. Because they were being persecuted by the Roman state, they could not leave for fear of death. A miracle occurred when a carob tree miraculously grew at the entrance of the cave, keeping them alive for thirteen years (3).
Celebrate by eating carob in any form!
One of the magical things about Judaism is the dedication to education and learning. Studying Jewish mysticism can look like many different things. It can be talking with a teacher, a rabbi, a learned friend; listening to a podcast, talk, or seminar; reading a book or essay.
Kabbalah, contrary to common belief, is inextricable from Judaism. It is the heart. If you have ever learned from Hasidic teachings, you have learned Kabbalistic concepts. They are innately Jewish, and while studying Kabbalah is not for everyone, acknowledging the deep mysticism of Judaism is important.
HAVE A GOOD TIME
Ultimately, this is a holiday of wonderous joy and exuberance. There is magic and mysticism and experiencing unfettered happiness. Celebrate, dance, sing, do cartwheels. Spend the day having fun. Experience and witness the joy. We can all use more of it.