What Is Lag B'Omer?
Lag BaOmer marks the date of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's death. So why is it such a celebration?
Rabbi Shimon in the Cave
Rabbi Shimon was a great sage who lived during the Roman conquest of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. He was one of Rabbi Akiva's five students who – despite terrible persecutions – ensured that the Torah would not be forgotten.
The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) describes a seminal event in the life of Rabbi Shimon:
When the Romans outlawed the study of Torah, Rabbi Shimon spoke out against them. The Romans thus pronounced a death sentence against Rabbi Shimon, who was forced to go into hiding.
Rabbi Shimon and his son Elazar fled to a cave in the northern region of Israel. They had no means of subsistence, but a miracle occurred and a carob tree sprouted in the cave, along with a stream of water.
Rabbi Shimon and his son had no change of clothes. In order to preserve their clothes from wearing out, they each dug a deep hole, removed their clothes and buried themselves neck-deep in the sand. (Out of modesty, they wanted to be covered.) They would spend the entire day immersed in Torah study. When the time for prayer arrived, they would put on their clothes, pray – and then return to the sand.
Rabbi Shimon and his son remained in the cave for 12 years, involved in nothing but the study of Torah. One day, Elijah the prophet came to the cave and announced that the Caesar had died, and the decree against Rabbi Shimon was lifted.
Rabbi Shimon and his son ventured out of the cave. They saw some farmers working in the field. Rabbi Shimon was shocked that his fellow Jews were not continuously occupied in Torah study. "How could anyone forsake eternal life by indulging in mundane, worldly pursuits?" he said. Rabbi Shimon then cast his gaze upon the farmers – and they were immediately vaporized, due to the power of Rabbi Shimon's spiritual stature.
At that point, a voice from heaven proclaimed: "My world is not to be destroyed! Return to your cave!"
Rabbi Shimon and his son returned to the cave, in order to learn better how to control their spiritual powers. At the end of one year, a voice from heaven announced: "Emerge from your cave!"
Rabbi Shimon and his son emerged, and again encountered people involved in mundane, worldly pursuits. It was Friday afternoon, and they saw a man running with two bundles of myrtle blossoms. "Where are you going with these flowers?" they asked him. "They are in honor of Shabbat," said the man. "But why do you have two bundles?" they asked. "One is for 'zachor,' and one is for 'shamor,' " he said, referring to the two aspects of Shabbat observance mentioned in the Ten Commandments.
At which point Rabbi Shimon turned to his son and said, "Now I see the power of a Jew and his mitzvot" – Shabbat is a day within the physical world which bridges the gap to the transcendent dimension. On Shabbat, even the most physical pursuits – whether a delicious meal or an afternoon nap – carries with it a special degree of holiness.
RABBI SHIMON REVEALS THE ZOHAR
Rabbi Shimon went on to become the greatest Torah teacher of his generation. When he reached the final day of his life, he called together his students and told them to pay close attention.
The Zohar (3:291b) describes the scene:
Rabbi Shimon spent the entire day in a prophetic stream of consciousness, revealing the deepest mystical secrets of Torah. He told his students: "Until now, I have held the secrets close to my heart. But now, before I die, I wish to reveal all."
Rabbi Abba, a student assigned with the job of transcribing Rabbi Shimon's words, reports: "I couldn't even lift my head due to the intense light emanating from Rabbi Shimon. The entire day the house was filled with fire, and nobody could get close due to the wall of fire and light. At the end of the day, the fire finally subsided, and I was able to look at the face of Rabbi Shimon: He was dead, wrapped in his Tallis, lying on his right side – and smiling."
Why was Rabbi Shimon bathed in light and fire? Because Torah is compared to fire – for example, "Aish HaTorah". Fire is that material which converts physical matter into energy. So too, Torah shows us how to transform the material world into a transcendent energy. In fact Rabbi Shimon's Kabbalistic work, "The Zohar," literally means "shining light."
How is Lag BaOmer Celebrated in Israel?
To celebrate Lag B'Omer, Jews from around Israel light bonfires, to commemorate the great fire that surrounded Rabbi Shimon. For weeks before, Israeli children scavenge wood to arrange as impressive sculptures – often 20 and 30 feet high. Great public celebrations are held and the wood towers are burned on Lag B'Omer.
But if Lag B'Omer marks the date of Rabbi Shimon's death, why is it such a celebration?
The reason is that Rabbi Shimon had been convicted of a capital crime by the Romans. By all rights, he should have died well before his time. But through tremendous self-sacrifice (hiding in the cave) and a series of miracles (the carob tree and the stream), Rabbi Shimon was able to live out a full life. The climax of this great life was the revelation of Torah's greatest inner secrets. All this is cause for celebration.
Lag B'Omer is a day of great pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon in the Galilee town of Meiron. In one day, an estimated 250,000 Jews visit Meiron – dancing, praying, and celebrating the wonderful spiritual gifts that Rabbi Shimon bequeathed to us. Some people camp out for weeks beforehand in anticipation.
On Lag B'Omer, the entire town is filled with torches and bonfires – in the streets and on the rooftops. Planes flying overhead are perplexed, and satellite maps of Israel take on a different glow. Symbolically, they illuminate the paths of those who seek to understand the deeper truths of Torah, as revealed by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.