Lag Ba'omer

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Festival songs set to music

Bible, Sages, the modern era and Zionism.

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> Background

Lag Ba’Omer, which is commemorated on the 18th Iyar, is apparently a relatively new festival. It has no origin in the Bible or the Mishnah and it appears for the first time in the 12th century. According to tradition on this date the death was determined for Rabbi Akiva’s disciples by a plague, and, on this day Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi) was born, married, certified for the rabbinate and died. On this day, for one day or in entirety, the customs of mourning which are customary during the Counting of the Omer, between Passover and Pentecost, are ceased, and therefore this is also an important date for holding weddings, which are not customary during this period. The main customs during this period are lighting bonfires and a celebration for Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Meron.

> The Story

The spring season, between Passover and Pentecost, is a period of suspense for the farmer, in which the fate of his crops for that year transpires. It seems that in days of yore it was not customary to celebrate during this period, in order hot to annoy the gods.

There is a hypothesis that the festival has roots in previous festivals which were celebrated on that date or proximate to it such as:  a fast day in memory of Yehoshua Ben Noon, the date from which and onwards rain is not requested and its appearance would be considered a miracle; the date of donations to the Temple and tithing of animals to the Temple. Furthermore, according to the Book of Genesis, the 18th Elul (sic) was the date on which the flood started, and according to the Book of Jubilees it was also the date on which it ended.

 

The first mentions of visiting the tombs of the Sages in Galilee during spring, including the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, appear in the scriptures from the 13th and the 15 centuries. From the 16th century and onwards Lag Ba’Omer, and at its centre visiting the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, became an important event for the disciples of Isaac Luria, the date of whose passing is attributed to this date. It is possible that the source of the celebrations is a similar celebration that was customary at the Tomb of Samuel the Prophet, close to Jerusalem.  The customs of the celebration for Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, which included the ceremonial lighting of fire, was further consolidated over the coming centuries, and the custom of lighting candles and torches spread also in the communities in Israel and the Diaspora.

> In Zionism

On the appearance of modern Jewish nationalism, during the time of searching for historical myths with which to identify, Lag Ba’Omer was connected with Jewish heroism. The custom of lighting fire was linked with the news of the eruption of the First Jewish-Roman War, which possibly was transferred by bonfires, which according to Yosef Ben Matityahu, was on 17th Iyar. As well as a link to the stories of the revolt, games of bows and arrows were adopted, which it would seem originate in the celebrations for the beginning of spring in Europe. Lag Ba’Omer became a festival of Zionist parades of the youth movements and a festival of lighting bonfires in the Diaspora and Israel.

Lag Ba’Omer was determined as the date of the foundation of the Bar Kochba movement, Ha’Shomer Hatzair, Bnei Akiva, the Palmach and the Gadna (the emblem of which is the bow and arrow). On this date the Order of the Foundation of the IDF was published.

 

In recent years, with the weakening of the Zionist ethos in Israeli society, the Zionist contexts of the festival are decreasing, however on the other hand, the celebration for Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Meron has become a mass event, attended by hundreds of thousands of people.