Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Lag Ba'Omer 2012- A City in Flames
History of the Holiday: In the bible, God commands the people of Israel to count the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. This span of time is called the "Omer". Lag Ba'Omer or לג נעומר literally refers to the 33rd day in the counting of the Omer.
What exactly is this Omer and why do we count?
Well, Passover is the holiday during which the Jews tell the story of slavery and Exodus from Egypt. Shavuot celebrates the reception of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. The act of counting the days between the two holidays, the more religious abiding by various living restrictions during this time, reminds the Jews of the difficult journey through the desert before God gave them the Torah.
There's no general consensus on why the 33rd day was chosen for celebration, but many Rabbis have offered their opinions throughout the ages. The most popular explanation refers to a plague during Talmudic times, which ended exactly on this 33rd day of the Omer.
History of the Celebration: How is it that Lag Ba'Omer became associated with field day sports and massive bond-fires if it's in essence about the journey through the desert toward receiving the Torah? I know, I was baffled by this too.
It turns out that there are various important Rabbis associated with this date including Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Bar Yochai. I won't go into the detailed stories, Wikipedia it to learn more on your own, but suffice it to say that in the Middle Ages, Lag Ba'Omer became a special day for Rabbinical students.
They soon called it "Scholar's Day" and celebrated by participating in outdoor sports. (I still don't get how outdoor sports are related to rabbis or scholars, but that's what the history books say!)
These outdoor sports are what I recall from our celebration of the holiday in the US. It was a day for color wars and Israeli dance, which I always thought was a real exultation of the end of spring and the nearing of summer.
Lag Ba'Omer in Israel: So, why is it that Lag Ba'Omer in Israel is about burning as much as you can in a massive bonfire that evokes some strange pagan ritual? Again dead Rabbis. As the day became associated with a celebration of Rabbis and Rabinical students, the evening became a memorial time when groups of Jews would gather by the graves of various Rabbis (Rabbi Akiba, Rabbi Bar Yochai, and Rabbi Shimon among others.) At these memorials/celebrations, Jews would light fires in their memory, hold torches, and feast late into the night.
According to Wikipidia, 'The bonfires are also said to represent signal fires that the Bar Kokhba rebels lit on the mountaintops to relay messages, or are in remembrance of the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans, who had forbidden the kindling of fires that signaled the start of Jewish holidays."
The Day In Flames: Today, the whole fire thing has become quite a site to see, especially in an urban metropolis such as Tel Aviv. Parks are filled with people BBQing, and stoking their bonfires, and the sky goes gray with ash and smoke.
For your viewing pleasure, take a look at first hand pics of the holiday, shot by the talented Yotam Asscher. Lag BaOmer is truly a site to see- fires are everywhere, with children throwing fuel into the fire- fuel of all kinds: wood, alcohol, twigs, paper- you name it. Families sit, munching on pita, hummus and kabab in the background, some stirring a massive pot of Poyke (stew), incelebration.