Lag B’Omer: Bonfire of the Heart


We have conflicting traditions about what we’re celebrating, who the hero is, and how to celebrate. We end a period of mourning that falls in what is ‘supposed’ to be the ‘time of our joy.’ Lag B’omer is one of the least and mis-understood holidays on the Jewish calendar, so what’s it all about?

Moses on Mount Sinai Painting
Painting by Jean Leon Gerome, c.1900, Moses on Mt. Sinai


Between Passover and Shavuot (Pentecost) we count the days leading up to the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai on Shavuot. During this time we are supposed to be purifying ourselves and perfecting our character to be worthy of receiving divine revelation. This is supposed to be a joyous time. The time of reveling in our newly found freedom after leaving Egypt and getting closer to G-d from a place of love and self improvement.


But there’s a problem. About 2,000 years ago during this same time period, the sage Rabbi Akiva’s students were hit with a plague. Our tradition says 24,000 Torah students died. Why? Because they did not give each other proper respect. They spoke insultingly of and to each other. So now, in the memory of these students, and the Torah teachings that they took to their graves, and to remind us of the reason they died and to avoid the same pitfall, we take on some of the customs of mourning. From the end of Passover until the 33rd (LaG in Hebrew) day of the Omer counting, when the plague ended, we do not listen to music, cut our hair, or buy new clothing.


On the 33rd, on Lag B’Omer, we are done mourning, and we can go back to the joy that is really supposed to characterize this time-period.

Pic: Visit!">"Yom Hillula of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai",  CC BY-SA 3.0
People visiting Rabbi Shimon’s grave on Lag B’Omer (Pic: “Yom Hillula of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai”, CC BY-SA 3.0)

So why the bonfires? Good question. This brings in a totally different story. When Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was dying, as it happens, on the 33rd day of the Omer, he gathered his students around to give over the most powerful and secret teachings of the Torah which he had kept secret until then. These secret teachings are likened to fire, extremely powerful, with the potential to improve or to destroy. When he died a pillar of flame rose up to the heavens that could be seen for miles around. In memory of Rabbi Shimon and his teachings, which later became the basis for the Zohar and modern Kabbalah, we light bonfires. Also, every year on Lag B’Omer hundreds of thousands of people go to Rabbi Shimon’s grave in Meron, near Tzfat, to honor his memory.


To summarize, there are three things going on simultaneously:

  1. A time of joy as we build up towards the giving of the Torah.
  2. Mourning for the passing of Rabbi Akiva’s students and celebrating when the plague ended, and
  3. Celebrating Rabbi Shimon and the Torah he passed on to his students.
  1. Nice summation! Thank you. Years ago, when I was bothered by the idea that Rabbi Akiva’s students, immersed in Torah and basking in his wisdom, would speak insultingly of and to each other, I came across a teaching by Rabbi Paysach Krohn. He said that we have an achrayut to give tochacha, rather than turning away from our beloved friend and allowing him to sin. (Of course, speaking up is only required if we believe our friend will listen, and if our tochacha is coming from a place of love. Admittedly, these are difficult requirements.) If I remember this d’var Torah, Rabbi Krohn said that these holy Jews did not speak ill of each other or mistreat each other. Rather, they saw their dear friends erring, and rather than talking to them about their errors, they said, “It’s not my business. It’s between Ploni and God.” Obviously, there are many lessons within our Torah. This one just sat better with me.

    1. Thanks Ruti. Yes our sources speak of them not treating each other with kavod (honor), so I see how exactly what that means is open to this interpretation, and I also appreciate it. Personally, I’ve been witness to how groups of people completely committed to Torah, and despite their holy teacher’s teachings can be caught up in certain transgressions that are ‘popular’ or hard to fight because of social pressure, etc., so I find the ‘traditional’ interpretation less hard to swallow. I think it’s important not to overly idealize the great among us and in our past. They were human too and had very human faults. That’s why it’s worth learning about them, relating to them, and learning from their mistakes as well as their strengths. 🙂

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