Lag B'Omer

We are used to equating holidays, especially Jewish holidays, with events from Holy Scripture. We now about Purim, Passover, Chanukah and maybe even some more. Sometimes, however, holy days are based on holy lives. And sometimes, they mark a difference to Holy Scripture.

After Passover, there is a period in Judaism that is called "counting the omer", from a unit of measurement for grain, going back to Leviticus 23. The days are counted from Passover, seven times seven days, to Shavuot, the next big festival. (By the way: "Pentecost" stems from the Greek for "50 days". After Easter, that is.) Psalm 67 is recited because, in Hebrew, it has exactly 49 words.

This period was originally a merry one, celebrating the beginning of the harvest, but that changed in later times. So many tragedies happened in that period that turned it into a time of mourning, especially in the Middle Ages, when Easter often marked the start of "Christian" persecutions. And it was on Passover that the Ghetto of Warsaw was wiped out.

But it started much earlier. In Roman times one of the greatest rabbis of old, Rabbi Aqiva, lived. He was the first to collect oral traditions for what would later become the Mishnah, the core of Talmud. He was a great scholar, mystic and teacher of the Jews. He was also a holy man.

But his disciples were different. They had no respect for each other, says the Talmud. So a plague came and started killing them, with many others around them. It looked as if they would all be wiped out, and all the teachings of Rabbi Aqiva with them. But the plague stopped, on the 33rd day of Omer. Seven of the disciples remained, all of whom became great and famous rabbis.

So this day became a break in the mourning period of the Omer. All the signs of mourning — not cutting one's hair, not marrying etc — that are the hallmarks of the Omer period, are suspended for one happy day. Because even though thousands died, seven survived. On Lag B'Omer.

This year (2003), Lag B'Omer falls on May 20th —Ed

By: Martin Liebig
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