Article - Lag Ba-Omer
Lag Ba-Omer - the thirty-third day of the counting of the Omer, an ancient measure -, falls on the 18th of the Hebrew month of Iyar. The letters L"G spell "33" in Hebrew numerals, while the Omer, described in Leviticus chapter 23, refers to the period of 50 days, counted from the day following the Passover Seder, when a sheaf of barley, the earliest grain to ripen, was brought to the Temple. Fifty days later came the Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot, when the main corn harvest was celebrated by offerings and pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Although not marked by synagogue services or home rituals, Lag Ba-Omer has for many generations been considered a special occasion. From Talmudic times, Jewish folklore has regarded the counting of the Omer as a season of semi-mourning, broken only by the thirty-third day on which shaving and hair-trimming were permitted, weddings were solemnized, and other festivities encouraged.
Some authorities believe that the melancholy character of the counting of the Omer stemmed from a plague which struck thousands of Rabbi Akiva's pupils in the 2nd century CE, but which ceased on Lag Ba-Omer, turning sadness to joy. Others think that these students did not die of plague, but were killed fighting with Shimon bar Kochba's forces against the Romans in 132 CE. The revolt is said to have begun during Passover - the Feast of Freedom - and to have been waged with many losses until Lag Ba-Omer, when a great victory, possibly the regaining of Jerusalem, was achieved.
Lag Ba-Omer is highlighted in Israel and the Diaspora not only by lifting the ban on marriages and other joyous functions, but by lighting bonfires and by children's games of archery. The bows and arrows - essentially warlike weapons - commemorate Bar Kochba's brave warriors, among whom were thousands of Rabbi Akiva's disciples, while the bonfires have a double significance. After the Roman conquest the Jews were forbidden to kindle their traditional hilltop beacons signaling the birth of a New Moon to the Jewish communities abroad, so one of Bar Kochba's first actions on capturing Jerusalem was to renew this symbol of Jewish independence. A second connotation represents the flame of Torah learning, dimmed under the Romans and revived by the teachings of Shimon bar Yochai, author of the mystical Zohar.
Israel's Lag Ba-Omer customs include a holiday for schools. and universities; excursions into the countryside, and what is called a Hillulah, initiated in the 16th century by Rabbi Isaac Luria Ha'Ari-of Safed. A joyful procession starts from Safed, home of the teaching of the Zohar, and finishes at the Yeshivah in nearby Meron, where Rabbi Shimon and his son, Eliezer, are buried.
On the roof of the Yeshivah, stone basins are prepared, filled with oil and set alight at midnight and, while prayers are chanted, articles of clothing belonging to sick people are burnt as a kind of pseudo-sacrifice. Next morning, three-year-old Orthodox boys and their fathers gather in the courtyard for the boys' first haircut, after which the infant curls are ceremoniously burnt. Incidentally, many rabbis disapprove of these practices. Looking around on Lag Ba-Omer night at the bonfires blazing in field and on hilltop, it is easy to recall the biblical Counting of the Omer of more than 3,000 years ago. Then it was a purely agricultural event, linking the barley with the wheat harvest, but following the destruction of the Second Temple, the festival took on a national aspect and later still, its semi-mourning character, while Bar Kochba's temporary return to power gave a spark of hope and brightness exemplified in Lag Ba-Omer itself. Medieval days brought with them other customs, adding yet one more aspect to Lag Ba-Omer of the present time.
The merriment of the festival is represented on the stamp by a reproduction of the painting by Israeli artist Reuven Rubin, Dancers of Meron, showing sages dancing against the backdrop of Mount Meron in Israel's Galilee.