The ending of the plague that afflicted over 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students, Talmudic in its origins, makes perfect sense when placed into historical context. As we learned earlier in this section, Bar Kokhba had led a valiant but unsuccessful revolt against the Romans in 132 CE. Rabbi Akiva had become an ardent supporter of Kokhba, believing him to be the coming of the Messiah. Many of his students had joined the revolt, fully supported by Akiva, and loss their lives in the battles that ensued. Talmudic rabbis continued to suffer under Roman persecution, and were ever cautious about openly discussing past rebellions. Perhaps they may have been hinting at those deaths when they spoke of a plague that killed so many of Akiva’s students. Perhaps Lag Ba’Omer marked a respite from battle, or even a momentary victory for Kokhba’s troops.
Another reason for this minor holiday concerns one of the few students of Rabbi Akiva that survived the revolt: Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai. It is said that he died on Lag Ba’Omer. After their defeat at the hands of the Romans, Rabbi Simeon continued to openly defy them. He was forced to flee or lose his life, and he spent many years in solitary.
According to tradition, he and his son Eleazer spent twelve years in a cave, where a miraculous well and a carob tree sustained them. Here they studied and prayed day in and day out. Upon their return, Rabbi Simeon denounced all practical forms of occupation, and insisted that people engage only in the study of Torah. Due to his rigid asceticism, God confined them to the cave for one more year.
His beliefs, however, resonated with spiritualists from his time and those that would come in the future. In Israel, on Lag Ba’Omer, people flock to the site of his grave near Safed, in the town of Meron in the Galilee. They light huge bonfires, dance around, and sing Kabbalistic hymns in his honor. Many Hasidic Jews bring their three-year-old children here for their first hair-cut. The custom of waiting until the third birthday could very well be an extension of the law that forbids picking the fruits of a new tree until it reaches the age of three.
One final theory for the joy of Lag Ba’Omer finds its roots in the story of Exodus. Some authorities believe that the manna that would feed the Israelites throughout their Diaspora in the desert first appeared on the eighteenth day of Iyar.
For all intents and purposes, and though its origins are mystical and uncertain, Lag Ba’Omer has become a minor holiday during the Jewish calendar year. There are many customs that take place on this day of joy, some of which are highlighted below:
Bonfires: Families and friends gather together for a bonfire or a picnic on Lag Ba’Omer, often on Mount Meron if in Israel. There are several reasons given for this custom. One is that the teachings of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai were compiled in the Zohar, meaning shining light, so we kindle bonfires to bring light to the world.
First Hair Cuts: As stated earlier, many have the custom not to cut a boy’s hair until he is three years old, the age at which he first begins to learn Torah. Because this idea is tied into Kabalistic thought concerning hair, many put off the ceremony, called an Upsherin, until Lag Ba’Omer.
Toy Bows & Arrows: The bows and arrows remind us of when the Romans ruled over the Land of Israel. The Romans did not allow Torah study. Anyone caught studying the Torah was killed. Rabbi Akiva did not stop teaching Torah. He said, “Jews without Torah are like fish without water! We must continue studying the Torah!” He and his students disguised themselves as hunters. They carried bows and arrows deep into the woods. There they would study Torah, sometimes while hiding in caves. Today, children often play with toy bow and arrows to commemorate this, usually at picnics in outdoor locations.
Weddings: Because weddings are not held during the mourning period of the Omer, and because of the high spiritual energy of the day, many people choose to get married on Lag Ba’Omer.
Mount Meron: In Israel, tens of thousands of people travel to Mount Meron to celebrate the Yahrtzeit, the anniversary of the death, of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Per his deathbed request, his death is celebrated, rather than mourned.