What is Lag B’Omer?
This year, (5774-2014), Lag B'Omer, the thirty-third day of the Omer, the 18th day of Iyar, is on May 18, 2014.
Lag B’Omer - (The word "Lag" is not really a word; it is the number 33 in Hebrew, as if you were to call the First of July "I July" (I being one in Roman numerals). It is the letters Lamed and Gimel).The numerical equivalent of the Hebrew letter "lamed" is thirty. Similarly, the numerical equivalent of the letter "gimel" is three. Together, they add up to - (I bet you said 33).
Anyway, Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day of S’firat Ha’Omer (the counting of the Omer).
What’s it all about?
Barley Time to Count
Pesach starts the grain harvesting season. Hashem commands that the barley cannot be harvested until the Korban Omer is brought.
The Korban Omer is also a starting point in the countdown to Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah). According to the Torah (Vayikra, Parshat Emor, 23:15-16), we are obligated to count the days from the second night of Pesach to the day before Shavuot, seven full weeks. This period is known as the Counting of the Omer.
These 49 days represent the 49 days of preparation from Yetziat Mitzrayim (exodus from Egypt) to Matan Torah on the seventh day of Sivan.
Time to Get the Torah
Hashem commands the Jews that on the fiftieth day of counting the Omer we must celebrate the Yom Tov of Shavuot. In the Bait Hamikdash the Kohanim would offer the Shtay Halechem (two loaves) baked from the first wheat of the new harvest.
Hashem promises that as a reward for the wheat offering He will bless the fruit of your fields.
After the destruction of the Bait Hamikdash, the practice of bringing the Korban Omer was discontinued but Jews continued to "count the Omer period," a custom which has continued throughout the ages.
Then Why Are These Days Sad Days?
Through the years, the Omer period has become identified with sad memories for Jewry. Massacres occurred during the period of the Romans and later still during the Crusades. In the days of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, the Jews - led by Bar Kochba - attemped to drive out the foreign oppressors from Judea. The revolt was unsuccessful and during the fighting thousands of Jews lost their lives.
According to the Talmud, (Tractate Yevamot 62b), 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died in one short period, because "they did not show proper respect to one another!" And all of them died between Pesach and Shavuot as a result of a mysterious G-d-sent plague that raged during the days of the Omer counting. For that reason, it is customary to observe a period of semi-mourning during this time, 16 Nissan - 5 Sivan, most prominently during the whole month of Iyar, (with one exception), when weddings are not held, hair is not cut, and music is not heard. Some do not shave during this entire period.
Some count the mourning period from Pesach to Lag B’Omer. Others go from Rosh Chodesh Iyar to Shavuot. This period is a time to reflect upon our middot and improve our relations with others.
Then Why Are We Happy On Lag B’Omer?
Because on one day only, Lag B’Omer, (the eighteenth of Iyar—The 33rd day of the Omer)—Rabbi Akiva’s pupils did not die. It was made into a festival in the middle of days of mourning that precede and follow it. The ban on weddings and joyful occasions was lifted.
Lag B’Omer is also the Yahrtzeit (anniversary of the death) of the Talmudic Sage and disciple of Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shimon bar (son of) Yochai, author of the Zohar. The Zohar which means "The Shining Light," deals with the mystical teachings of the Torah and is the basis for Kabbala, whose secrets will bring about the coming of Moshiach.
How Do We Celebrate Lag B’Omer?
Lag B’Omer is characterized by a day of outings. In Eretz Yisroel and throughout the Diaspora, the day is celebrated with picnics, ballgames, and mock bow-and-arrow play-fighting. it is also customary to light bonfires and sing and dance around them.
Tens of thousands of Jews congregate at Meron, in Eretz Yisroel, the burial place of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and his son, Rabbi Elazar b’Rebbi (son of Rabbi) Shimon, where the day is celebrated with bonfires and songs. Many parents wait until their son is three to cut his hair, and on Lag B’Omer they cut his hair for the first time at the burial place of Rabbi Shimon.
This odd celebration of a Yahrtzeit was a specific request by Bar Yochai of his students. Even though the death of such a great sage is a sad event, there is also joy surrounding the fact that he attained his final reward (as the Zohar explains), and the fact that he revealed many deep secrets of the Torah to his students on his dying day.
The Zohar says that on the day Rabbi Shimon died, a great light of endless joy filled the day because of the secret wisdom he revealed to his students. That secret wisdom was recorded in the Zohar. The sun did not set until Rabbi Shimon hd revealed all that he was allowed to. As soon as he was done, the sun set and he died. The fire which surrounded the house, preventing any but Rabbi Shimon’s closest students from approaching, serves as a basis for the custom of lighting bonfires on Lag B’Omer.