Perhaps more so than with any other day on the Jewish calendar, there is much confusion and a great many misconceptions about what exactly the significance of Lag B’Omer is. The goal of this piece is to work through the primary sources and build the day as per said sources.
Lag B’Omer In The Primary Sources
There is simply no mention of Lag B’Omer whatsoever in any part of Chumash, Navi, Kesuvim or Mishnah and so we begin with the single piece of Gemara that is relevant to our discussion:
אמרו — שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא מגבת עד אנטיפרס וכולן מתו פרק אחד מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה. והיה העולם שמם עד שבא ר"ע אצל רבותינו שבדרום ושנאה להם ר"מ ור' יהודה ור' יוסי ורבי שמעון ורבי אלעזר בן שמוע. והם הם העמידו תורה אותה שעה. תנא — כולם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת. אמר רב חמא בר אבא ואיתימא ר' חייא בר אבין — כולם מתו מיתה רעה:
It was said: R. Akivah had 12,000 pairs of students, from Gabbat to Antifaras and they all died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until R. Akivah came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to R. Meir, R. Judah, R. Yossi, R. Shimon and R. Eleazar ben Shammuah; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. It was taught: All of them died between Pesach and Shavuos. Rabbi Hama bar Abba or, it might be said, Rabbi Chiyya bar Abin said: All of them died a cruel death.
Noticeably absent from the single Gemara that discusses this topic is any mention at all of Lag B’Omer itself. It would seem from the Gemara that not only is there no special significance to the day of Lag B’Omer, but that the death of R. Akivah’s students continued all the way until Shavuos. Why it has become the custom to mourn these deaths specifically at all is something to which we shall later return, but it should be noted at this point that there is simply no mention of Lag B’Omer anywhere in all of Shas.
The earliest mention of Lag B’Omer at all is in the Machzor Vitri penned in approximately 1175, and it reads as follows1:
וביום פורים הוא ל׳ג בעומר. וזכר לדבר ׳שם האחד פל׳ג׳. פורים ל׳ג בעומר.
And the day of Purim is [the same day of the week as] Lag B’Omer. And a way to remember this is “the name of one is ‘Peleg’” (Gen. 10:15) [which expands to] Purim, Lag B’Omer.
Needless to say, while the Machzor Vitri finds an allusion to the fact that Purim and Lag B’Omer fall out on the same day of the week in a seemingly random posuk of Noach’s genealogies, this note on Lag B’Omer can hardly be seen as a real source for any significance to the day.
The earliest source of any true significance ascribed to the day of Lag B’Omer comes from the Meiri (1300’s) in commentary to the aforementioned Gemara2:
וקבלה ביד הגאונים שביום ל”ג בעומר פסקה המיתה, ונוהגים מתוך כך שלא להתענות בו. וכן נוהגים מתוך כך שלא לישא אשה מפסח עד אותו זמן.
There is a received tradition from the Geonim that on the 33rd day of the Omer the deaths (of the students of R. Akivah) stopped, and we have the custom therefore not to fast on this day. We also have the custom not to get married from Pesach until this time.
Certainly, this is the first mention of anything that remotely resembles the day as we now know it. The trouble is, though, as far as we know there is no such tradition mentioned by any of the Geonim. It is possible that the Meiri knew something we do not — and new manuscripts can always emerge — but as it stands, not a single source before the Meiri makes any mention of such a thing. Indeed, when we turn to the Tur, we see an uncertainty regarding the 33rd day of the Omer:
ויש מסתפרי' מל"ג בעומר ואילך שאומרים שאז פסקו מלמות
And there are those that will cut their hair on the 33rd day of the Omer and on as it is said that this is when the deaths [of the students of R. Akivah] stopped.
The Tur incorporates the idea that the 33rd day of the Omer is when the deaths stopped as a possibility, but the language makes clear that it is only a possibility, namely, that “it is said.” The Shulchan Aruch codifies this formulation as well:
ב. נוֹהֲגִים שֶׁלֹּא לְהִסְתַּפֵּר עַד ל”ג לָעֹמֶר, שֶׁאוֹמְרִים שֶׁאָז פָּסְקוּ מִלָּמוּת, וְאֵין לְהִסְתַּפֵּר עַד יוֹם ל”ד בַּבֹּקֶר אֶלָּא אִם כֵּן חָל יוֹם ל”ג עֶרֶב שַׁבָּת שֶׁאָז מִסְתַּפְּרִין בּוֹ מִפְּנֵי כְּבוֹד הַשַּׁבָּת. הַגָּה: וּבִמְדִינוֹת אֵלּוּ אֵין נוֹהֲגִין כִּדְבָרָיו, אֶלָּא מִסְתַּפְּרִין בְּיוֹם ל”ג וּמַרְבִּים בּוֹ קְצָת שִׂמְחָה וְאֵין אוֹמְרִים בּוֹ תַּחֲנוּן (מַהֲרִי”ל וּמִנְהָגִים). וְאֵין לְהִסְתַּפֵּר עַד ל”ג בְּעַצְמוֹ וְלֹא מִבָּעֶרֶב (מַהֲרִי”ל). מִיהוּ אִם חָל בְּיוֹם רִאשׁוֹן, נוֹהֲגִין לְהִסְתַּפֵּר בְּיוֹם ו' לִכְבוֹד שַׁבָּת (מַהֲרִי”וּ). מִי שֶׁהוּא בַּעַל בְּרִית אוֹ מָל בְּנוֹ, מֻתָּר לְהִסְתַּפֵּר בַּסְּפִירָה לִכְבוֹד הַמִּילָה. (הַגָּהוֹת מִנְהָגִים).
It is customary not to cut one's hair until Lag BaOmer, since it is said that that is when they stopped dying. One should not cut one's hair until the 34th day, in the morning, unless the 33rd day falls on Friday, in which case one may cut one's hair then, in honor of the Sabbath ("kavod Shabbat"). Rema: But in these countries, we do not follow the custom he advocates; rather, we cut our hair on the 33rd day, and we rejoice a bit, and we do not say Tachanun (Maharil and Minhagim). And one should only cut one's hair on the 33rd day itself, but not on its evening. However, if it falls on Sunday, our custom is to cut our hair on Friday in honor of the Sabbath (Maharil). Someone who is performing a brit milah (i.e., the sandak, mohel and the infant's father), or circumcizing his son, is allowed to cut his hair during sefirah in honor of the circumcision (Hagahot Minhagim).
Note once again the uncertain language of “it is said3,” and also the fact that Rema adds that it is the custom to rejoice slightly on the 33rd of the Omer.
To summarize thus far: Nowhere in all of Tanach, Mishnah, Gemara, Midrashim, Geonim, Rishonim is there any significance ascribed to the day of Lag B’Omer beyond the fact that it is possible that this is when the students of R. Akivah stopped dying and that we refrain from exterior signs of mourning on these days. It is obvious, however, that it is not even certain when the students of R. Akivah actually stopped dying. The Gemara itself states that the deaths occurred all the way until Shavuos, and there are people still today that observe the mourning of Sefirah for the entire 50 days. Further, the Beis Yosef (493:3) records another tradition that the deaths only occurred on the days during Sefirah on which no tachanun was recited. As such, there is a custom to observe the laws of mourning only on such days during the Sefirah (Sh"t Igros Moshe 1:159). Finally, there was even apparently a Geonic tradition to fast on the day of Lag B’Omer to commemorate the death of Yehoshua4. Needless to say, Lag B’Omer being significant insofar as it being the day that R. Akivah’s students stopped dying is anything but simple. Nevertheless, it seems to have become the day set aside to commemorate the fact that, at one point or another, the students of R. Akivah did stop dying5. This commemoration, however, would really only lend itself to slight celebration in the form of a prohibition on any public acts of mourning. This idea is echoed rather strongly by the Chasam Sofer (YD:233) who thinks it is absolutely incorrect to establish a holiday on a day that is not mentioned whatsoever in all the Gemara or Poskim, and that simply refraining from fasting and mourning is considered celebration enough as per Rema quoted above.
(See also the lack of any real significance given to the day in Sefer Ta’amei Haminhagim — a rather recent work that attempted to list and explain even the most obscure customs of Klal Yisrael — as well as Teshuvos Minchas Elazar 4:60.)
The Matter of Rashbi’s Yahrzeit
Considering we have essentially arrived at modern-day authorities with no major significance ascribed to Lag B’Omer, what are we to make of the commonly made connection between this day and R. Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi)6?
The most well-known connection between Lag B’Omer and Rashbi is that it is his yahrzeit, the day that he died. Despite the fact that this is almost certainly not factually accurate, the very idea of celebrating on the day of someone’s death is quite odd. Indeed, the halacha states the opposite — that we should fast on yahrzeits. This rather major issue aside, though, there is simply not one solid source that Lag B’Omer is the day that Rashbi died. It is not mentioned anywhere in Chazal, Geonim, Rishonim nor even in the Zohar.
Where, then, does this idea originate? It would seem to stem from a rather unfortunate typo in a printing of Pri Eitz Chayim, a work by the Ariz”l’s top student, R. Chayim Vital (1500’s). The correct text that appears in all manuscripts save two reads “שמח,” that Lag B’Omer was a day of joy for Rashbi (a point to which we shall return). Two editions of the book published in the late 1700’s, however, contained a mistake in which the word instead read something extremely similar, but drastically different in meaning. These editions instead had the word “שמת,” meaning that Lag B’Omer was the day that Rashbi died7. Both R. Yaakov Hillel and the Lubavitcher Rebbe confirm that “שמח” is the correct text8, as per all other versions of the manuscripts.
There is also one other source that Lag B’Omer is the yahrzeit of Rashbi and it appears in the book Chemdat Yamim published in the 1700’s. Aside from this being an extremely late source for such an idea, many scholars believe this book to be the work of Nathan of Gaza, a “prophet” of Shabbesai Tzvi — not the greatest source for basing Jewish ritual practice on.
Other than these two texts — one of which is a misprint, the other of which is likely heretical — there is not a single real source that Lag B’Omer is the day that Rashbi died. Indeed, in all discussion of Lag B’Omer since the Gemara, until rather recently, there is not one mention of Lag B’Omer being the day that Rashbi died. Not even the Magen Avraham (1600’s) or the Ariz”l (1500’s), who both do ascribe greater significance to the day of Lag B’Omer than does the Shulchan Aruch, make any mention of it being the yahrzeit of Rashbi. It is safe to conclude, therefore, given all the above, that the idea of Lag B’Omer being the day that Rashbi died is simply unfounded.
We now turn our attention to the recent practice of visiting Meiron — the alleged but uncertain burial place of Rashbi — on Lag B’Omer.
In short, while simply visiting the gravesite on Lag B’Omer is a practice mentioned by the Ariz”l9, there are general concerns with actually praying at a gravesite that need to be taken into account. Further, R. Yoel Teitelbaum (the Satmar Rebbe) believes it to actually be a spiritual danger for anyone not truly holy and righteous enough to pray at a gravesite10.
R. Mendel Blachman recalled to me in person once that as of only about 50 years ago Lag B’Omer was not the worldwide celebration and party that it is today — not even in Meiron. While there was some celebration going on in Meiron it was rather limited. There, R. Blachman posited, people lit yahrzeit candles in (mistaken) memory of the passing of Rashbi. Over time, perhaps with the assistance of overly-enthusiastic children, these little candles turned into much larger bonfires. These bonfires then spread throughout Israel, and, eventually, the whole of the world. As is customary at bonfires, participants toast a few marshmallows and maybe even have a BBQ. Remember, though, that from a historical perspective these bonfires are simply an outgrowth of a yahrzeit candle, so these people are toasting marshmallows in somebody’s yahrzeit candle…
A teacher of mine once joked that he thinks the celebrations that occur nowadays in Meiron on Lag B’Omer violate the various forms of idolatry mentioned in the Mishnah:
העובד עבודה זרה: אחד העובד, ואחד הזובח, ואחד המקטר, ואחד המנסך, ואחד המשתחוה, ואחד המקבלו עליו לאלוה, והאומר לו אלי אתה.
The idolator — [this includes the following:] one who worships, sacrifices, offers fires, pours libations of wine, bows, accepts it as a god, and one who says to it, "You are my god."
There are certainly fires offered, as well as libations of wine poured in the form of ח"י רוטל. Many also save the upsherin of their child for Lag B’Omer which could very well be seen as being להסיר שערות to idolatry, an offense mentioned by Rambam.
While this perspective was meant only in jest, and those that do such things lack any malicious intent so as to actually violate the prohibition of idolatry, the fact that what has become of Lag B’Omer ritual smacks of idolatry and paganism should at the very least give us pause.
The Meaning Of Lag B’Omer11
What, then, is the real meaning of this day?
The Zohar mentions that Lag B’Omer was something of a special day for Rashbi as it was on this day that he achieved a certain “light,” and that it was his will that his students celebrate this day in the future. R. Yaakov Hillel advances the compelling theory that this was the day that Rashbi received smicha — and not the sort of smicha that is common today, but the real smicha in direct link to Moshe Rabbeinu at Sinai. Indeed, this is a level that not even the likes of Rava or Abaye ever reached. Lag B’Omer, then, was a great day in Rashbi’s life and it is thus his Torah that we celebrate on this day. Further, it is generally accepted that it was Rashbi’s academy and students whom were the first to write down and pass on the Jewish mystical tradition, and it is this that we celebrate on Lag B’Omer as well.
The deeper meaning of the day, however, requires more work to uncover. Famously, R. Akivah’s students were punished with death due to the fact that they did not respect one another. They were selfish, imposing, and disrespectful, and did not allow for the interpretations or opinions of others. It was these 24,000 students that were meant to carry on the Mesorah; they were meant to be the next great carriers of the tradition. They lacked a sense if respect, however, and thus lacked the ability to truly teach. They lacked derech eretz — something that must come before Torah itself. Indeed, the Gemara explains that it is for this reason that we generally accept the rulings of Hillel over Shamai — for the students of Hillel would state the opinions of their dissenters before their own out of respect and consideration for opposing opinions. R. Akivah’s students, though, did not possess this crucial character trait. God saw this, and saw that the Jewish tradition could not be carried on through such people, and sent a plague to kill them. There was a tumor, a sickness, in the very heart of the Mesorah, and God performed a surgery. Lag B’Omer is the day that we begin to recover from that surgery as R Akivah, already an old man, began to search for new students. He found them, but this time only five: R. Yehudah Bar Ilai, R. Eliezer, R. Meir, R. Yose, and R. Shimon Bar Yochai. These became the five major minds of the Gemara; the five people whom each possessed love and respect for their fellow man; the five primary individuals through whom the Mesorah progressed.
But there were only five when there could have been so many more. The Gemara could have been larger, more vast, more expansive. There could be unimaginably more Torah today that was instead lost to people who got too caught up in their own learning, to people that had no derech eretz.
Thus, Sefiras HaOmer is set aside as a time to work on ourselves as we prepare to receive the Torah on Shavuos. It is a time to work on our derech eretz, as per Chazal’s popular adage, “derech eretz kadmah l’Torah”. It is our goal to be able to receive the Torah in the singular, as a unified whole, just as the Jewish nation did at the base of Sinai when the Torah used the singular term “vayichan” to describe their encampment there. This unity is the very opposite of R. Akivah’s students, and is what we, as a nation, need to work on during Sefiras HaOmer. In order to receive the Torah on Shavuos we must first purify and refine our character12. Sefiras HaOmer, then, is a time when we mourn not simply the deaths of 24,000 students, but the loss of Torah that went along with them. It is a time that we are meant to think about all that could have been.
And then there is Lag B’Omer. It is not a day dedicated to dancing, lighting bonfires, or shooting arrows. It is, rather, a celebration of Torah; a celebration of the rebuilding and continuation of the Mesorah. For God is meticulous with just who carries the tradition, and sometimes performs extreme purges — that is the mourning of Sefiras HaOmer. On the other hand, on Lag B’Omer we thank God that it continues, and we celebrate a particular man’s tremendous contribution.
There is indeed a place for mishteh v’simchah on Lag B’Omer, but not in the superficial, sometimes barbaric manner and practices that so many seem to take part in. The extreme celebrations on this day are modern inventions of the last half century and thus have no true source in Judaism. The great past bearers of our tradition would be utterly at a loss standing in Meiron on the night of Lag B’Omer. Lag B’Omer is a holiday celebrating the Mesorah of Torah sh’ba’al peh. Nobody said anything about dancing around bonfires.
1. This, and a number of the other sources mentioned herein, are mentioned in The Mysterious Origins of Lag Ba-Omer by Mitchell First in Vol. 20 of Hakirah.↩
2. It should be here noted that the Ba’al HaMaor did claim to have seen a manuscript of the Gemara in Yevamos in which it had a different text reading that the deaths stopped on pros ha’atzeres but both the veracity of this manuscript, and the exact meaning of pros are unclear. It is, however, possible that there does exist a text which could be interpreted to read that the deaths stopped on the 33rd.↩
3. By way of interest as well, note that there is no mention of a custom not to listen to music during the Omer.↩
4. See Hakirah Vol. 20 pg. 211.↩
5. Mitchell First puts forth the theory in his previously mentioned essay that the custom of mourning for a full 50 days was simply too difficult for the Jewish people to keep, and so we have instead reduced it to only 33 days.↩
7. To learn more about these divergent manuscripts see the essay on Seforim blog mentioned in footnote 6.↩
8. In Sefer Shaar Ha-Tefilah and a letter to R. Shlomo Yosef Zevin, respectively. ↩
9. Mishnat Chassidim, Kabbalat Ha’Ari↩
10. See his Al Ha’Geulah V’Al Ha’Temurah 108↩
11. Heard in-person from R. Mendel Blachman.↩
12. This is the essential idea behind the Kabbalistic middos ascribed to each day of the Omer.↩