This past weekend, the Jewish nation celebrated Lag Ba’Omer. For the average American Jew, Lag Ba’Omer may be a bit of a mystery — there is no Christian equivalent, it is not commercialized in any way, and pop culture has not poked fun at it, yet. In my quest to understand the holiday, it became obvious why Lag Ba’Omer shies away from the secular, public eye: it’s transcendental, spiritual, and introspective. It is a holiday of the soul.
In all of its vagueness and glory, the soul is the essence of an individual, the raison d’être. To look into one’s soul is to understand one’s self. Yet, the soul transcends the individual, for it is merely a constituent of a universal divinity that all people (and objects) tap into. As the story of creation reveals, on the sixth day, G-d “breathed into [man’s] nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). An ounce of divinity within each and every one of us forms a collective soul, which we may only access by truly understanding and respecting the divine essence of each individual.
Lag Ba’Omer, a holiday that commemorates the revelation of Jewish mysticism, offers insight as to the importance of upholding the collective soul. The following is an accumulation of rabbinical knowledge and insight into the holiday and its spiritual implications.
The holiday itself coincides with the day that the students of the great Rabbi Akiva ceased dying. History tells us that 24,000 of the greatest Torah scholars were inflicted by a divinely-sent plague during the counting of the Omer (the period between Passover and Shavuot) for mistreating one another. Ironically, it was Rabbi Akiva who interpreted “love you fellow Jew as yourself” as the cardinal rule of the Torah.
There are multiple interpretations explaining what transgression was worthy of a wrath so severe. According to Talmud Yevamot, the students “failed to treat one another with respect” (62b). One may question the redundancy of the wording — why not merely state that they did not respect one another? The answer lies in the difference between respect as a noun and respect as a verb. Rabbi Akiva’s students did indeed revere one another; it was simply out of misplaced love that each student believed that he alone knew what was best for his fellow Jews, and it manifested itself as condescension. The discordance between respecting and treating one with respect poses a problem, for it is only through the act of respect — rather than the thought — that one is able to discover the unique essence of a person, and consequently tap into this broader network of divinity.
A second interpretation understands the mistreatment to be that “[the students’] eyes looked begrudgingly upon each other” (Rabbi Brander). Although this interpretation hints less at the presence of respect as a thought, it does point out that sometimes reverence for others breeds envy. In both interpretations, the lack of respect wedges the students apart, driving each student deeper into his own mind and preventing him from transcending the self or truly understanding the other.
Respect is thus the means for which to espy human spirit. The word for respect in Hebrew, kavod, shares the same letters as the Hebrew word for heavy, kaveid; respect is not a quality to be taken lightly, for respectfulness is the way through which to gain insight into a person’s core, and consequently tap into the collective divine spirit.
Rabbi Akiva’s students’ failure to respect one another prevented them from acknowledging the divinity within their fellow students. This manifests itself through their punishment: the students were inflected by a plague — according to Rabbi Nachman, a choking disease — that symbolically parallels the consequential self-destruction of disrespecting others. Inability to show respect is to deny the divine spirit within others; spirit, being like breath, is essential to individuals, for without it, we suffocate.
However, there is another interpretation of how the students died: according to Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, a prominent Orthodox rabbi of the 1900s, the Talmud’s word for the plague is actually a veiled reference to the Bar Kochba Revolt against the ruling Romans, meaning that the students died in the uprising. This is significant, for the inability to respect one another through action, particularly to establish a higher level relationship with one another (and consequently with G-d), can hinder progress and evolution of character. Life is a battlefield, and without connecting to one another to tap more and more into the divine collective soul, the Jewish Nation — G-d’s spiritual army — cannot survive, let alone flourish.
Preservation and advancement of the community — of the Jewish nation — is thus the telos of existence; individual prosperity consequently is a product of this. Hence, individual divinity, which we call the soul, evolves most as it is able to connect with the divinity within other souls. Although each of us has a modest divine spark, together we illuminate the world.
The core of Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah, as revealed in the Zohar and commemorated on Lag Ba’Omer, celebrates this intrinsic divinity. Kabbalah is the soul of Judaism based on one pervasive reality — the divine reality — which underlies everything in the world. This appreciation of the underlying essence of each and every one of G-d’s creations is in itself the ultimate manifestation of respect. To respect and to appreciate others is to recognize the divinity within every being, including ourselves.
What is Lag Ba’Omer?
Lag Ba’Omer commemorates the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a leading disciple of Rabbi Akiva in the second century, and the day on which he disclosed the Zohar (Book of Splendor), which reveals the deepest secrets of kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). It also marks the last death of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students due to their mistreatment of one another.
When is Lag Ba’Omer?
Lag Ba’Omer means “33rd day in the Omer”; according to gematria (hebrew numerology), the Hebrew letter lamed (“L”) has a numerical value of 30, while the letter gimmel (“G”) has a numerical value of 3. This year, it fell on the eve of May 17th, and ended the eve of May 18th.
What are the meanings behind some of the customs?
1. Bonfires: To represent the profundity and intensity of the light brought into the world through the mystical teachings of kabbalah.
2. Children playing with toy bows and arrows: (1) Symbolizes the absence of rainbows during Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s lifetime, for rainbows are G-d’s symbol of disproval. In Genesis 9: 11-13, G-d promised man to never again destroy the earth, and instead send a rainbow during tumultuous times; (2) Represents prayer, for when one pulls inwards and becomes in touch with his/her divine spirit, they are able to go further in life.
3. Rejoicing: Lag Ba’Omer marks the end of the mourning period of the Omer, and thus it is customary to have weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, upshurnishes (hair-cutting ceremony), and other jolly festivities.