Lag BaOmer is a holiday of many meanings, in both the religious and the secular term. Its name literally means the 33rd day in the omer. The Hebrew letters of L (lamed) and G (gimel) together have the value of 33.

The day is meant to commemorate the 33rd of 49 days in the omer – a period of seven weeks counted from the second day of Pesach according to the following words of the Torah: "And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day [Pesach holiday] from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering seven weeks; they shall be complete." (Book of Leviticus, Emor, 23, 15).

In ancient times, omer was a unit of measure for dry commodities and was probably equal to 2.3 litres (43.2 eggs, according to tradition). An omer was the amount of barley flour offered in the Temple on the second day of Pesach. The flour was then mixed with oil and incense and burnt "to the Lord as a spirit of satisfaction" (Book of Leviticus, Emor, 23, 13). The "wave" mentioned in the quote is a phenomenon desired by farmers in which crops "wave forwards and backwards, upwards and downwards. Moving it forwards and backwards to keep off violent winds; upward and downward, in order to keep off harmful dews" (The Talmud, Menachot, 62a). The seven-week period, i.e. forty-nine days, was calculated by saying a special blessing during the evening prayer that at the same time was the "counting of the omer". The Shavuot holiday fell on the fiftieth day, when the first fruits ceremony was repeated, this time the first omerof a new wheat harvest being offered.

However, Lag BaOmer is not the first, last or the middle one, but the thirty-third day of counting the omer. Its special observance commemorates events which are quite obscure today but which according to tradition resulted in the deaths of 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who lived in the 2nd century AD. According to some interpretations, it was a penalty for devout Jews "for not showing respect to one another". Others speak about a mysterious epidemic which lasted for the whole 49 days after Pesach, with only the 33rd day having passed without any fatalities. Others still refer to a victory in Bar Kokhba's insurgency against the Romans (134-135 AD). There was also a different interpretation according to which this was the first day that God sent manna to Jews travelling across the desert towards the Promised Land. Several other commemorations contributed to the old tradition, including the yahrzeit of Simeon bar Yochai, an author of the Kabbalah book of Zohar who died more than ten years after the armed insurgency of the 2nd century, and the yahrzeit of Moses Isserles, called the Rema, who was buried in Krakow.

The joyful celebrations of Lag BaOmer combine all the themes. Apart from elements typical of farmer holidays (formerly the first harvest offering and today the requirement to go to the country, to the forests and meadows, and to make bonfires), there are also military themes (traditional archery competitions). A grand yahrzeit that also involves the first haircut of three-year-old boys is held in Meron in Galilee, where Simeon bar Yochai is buried. Lag BaOmer is also an ideal time for wedding ceremonies, which are not normally held on the other days of counting the omer.

In inter-war Poland, the holiday was widely celebrated both in religious and Zionist communities. Cheders and yeshivas were closed on that day. Thousands of orthodox Jews came to Krakow to visit Rabbi Rema's grave. The Polish State Railways offered organised groups 66% discounts on return trips. On the occasion of the holiday, the Jewish National Fund urged people to offer their one day's earnings for the Palestinian cause. School youth took part in ceremonial synagogue services, and then went to the sports grounds run by Maccabi, an organisation that since 1928 treated Lag BaOmer as the day of Jewish sports. Special archery competitions and later even rifle shooting competitions were organised there, with gyms ready in case of bad weather. Annual parades and holiday competitions that attracted crowds of students and members of youth organisations were organised in Warsaw since 1915. They were shown in Lag ba-Omer szel Ha-Szomer ha-Cair be-Warsza (Hebrew for Hashomer Hatzair celebrates the Lag BaOmer holiday in Warsaw)a 1929 documentary by Saul Goskind.

Zionist communities celebrated Lag BaOmer in the spirit of a 1920 decision by the Central Committee of the Zionist Organisation in Poland that considered the holiday "a day of celebrating the assignment of Palestine to Jews". The message stressed the patriotic theme of Rabbi Akiva's "last attempt at a military insurgency before leaving for the diaspora". It made reference to Simeon bar Yochai, a symbol of relentlessness. "When he looked at an enemy, his burning eyes turned them into ashes", and he died saying "Remember to always hate the Romans!". Agudat ha Noar ha Ivri "Akiva", a youth organisation that was symbolically and directly connected with the 2nd century Rabbi, was particularly visible. In 1934, its Diwrej Akiba magazine published a special holiday appeal that is worth recalling:

"Lag BaOmer has become a holiday of reborn Jewish youth, a festival of their brawn and a symbol of their strength. However, Lag BaOmer is not a holiday for all youth – not all have freed themselves from the slavery of golus [Golus from Hebrew 'galut', Yiddish 'goles' – exile] – not all have risen to a new life. So we are calling upon you! Let Lag BaOmer become a holiday of all Jewish youth – let it be a day of the tough decision to enter a new stage in your lives. – All of you who have despised reality, – All of you in whose hearts rebellion is burning and calling for the revival of a new Jew, drop the idleness that is a disgrace for a young man, connect your life with the fate of a creative and joyful crowd of the youth movement. There is a great distance from the world of snobs, philistines and careerists to the life of the victorious Haluza avant-garde of Tomorrow. There is a vast space between the life of a stagnant city-dweller, demoralised by inactivity and lack of purpose, and the free community of Jewish scouts in the boundless fields, in the light of bonfires and in wind-swept tents, who are forging their new lives. But you need to cross this space! There is no bridge among the forged ways. Those who have decided to follow one, will forever give up the other. Your youth pride will show you the way of the truth! So let Lag BaOmer be the holiday of all young people! And those who mocked yesterday. And those who doubted their strength. And those who used to be in spiritual captivity".

It was during the Lag BaOmer holiday, on 12 May 1902, that the Nożyk Synagogue in Warsaw was inaugurated. 

Bibliography:

  • "Będzin. Zbiórka na Keren Kajemet”, [in:] Nowy Dziennik of 12 May 1928, p. 11.
  • "Children's Lag B'omer parade prohibited in Warsaw”, [in:] The Sentinel of 18 May 1928, p. 3.
  • Diwrej Akiba of 5 May 1936, p. 16.
  • "Do młodych!"[in:] Diwrej Akiwa of 4 May 1934, p. 8.
  • “Lag ba-Omer”, [in:] “Polski Słownik Judaistyczny”, vol. 2, Warsaw, 2003.
  • “Lag b’Omer”, [in:] Nowy Dziennik of 9 May 1928, p. 9.
  • "Lag Beomer"[in:] Jerozolima Wyzwolona of 12 May 1939, p. 10.
  • “Tora Pardes Lauder. Volume Three – Book of Leviticus”, translated and edited by S. Pecaric, Krakow 2006, pp. 278–279.
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