The Counting of the Omer:
According to the Torah (Lev. 23:15), we are obligated to count the 49 days between Passover and Shavu'ot, this is the Counting of the Omer. The counting is intended to remind us of the link between Passover, which commemorates the Exodus, and Shavu'ot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah and helps us remember that liberation from slavery was not complete until we received the Torah. The Omer is a semi-mourning period in which we spiritually cleanse ourselves in preparation for receiving the Torah and haircuts, shaving, listening to instrumental music, or conducting weddings, parties, and dinners with dancing are forbidden.
Lag is a transliteration of the Hebrew letters לג that represent the number 33. Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer.
On Lag B’Omer, Jews all throughout the world commemorate three events:
1. The cessation of the plague that killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students
2. The end of the Bar Kochba rebellion against Roman occupation of Judea
3. The death of an incredible Torah Sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (thought to be the author of the Zohar).
Jewish spirituality, Jewish history and the fight for sovereignty in the Jewish homeland blend into one on Lag B’Omer.
Rabbi Akiva was an ardent supporter of Shimon Bar Kochba, who in 132 C.E. led a ferocious but unsuccessful revolt against Roman rule in Judea. Many of Rabbi Akiva’s students backed the revolt and were killed along with thousands of Judeans when it failed. The Talmudic rabbis, still suffering under Roman rule and cautious about referring openly to past rebellions, may have been hinting at those deaths when they spoke of a plague among Akiva’s students.
Tradition says that, on the date of his death, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai revealed the deepest secrets of the Kabbalah and thus Lag B’Omer became a day of celebration of the great light (i.e., wisdom) that Bar Yochai brought into the world.
Lag B’Omer is commemorated by bonfires and children playing with bow and arrows. Religious tradition says that this is to celebrate the life of Shimon Bar Yochai, the light he brought into the world and celebrate the end of the plague that impacted our nation so greatly. Zionist tradition says that the bonfires are in memory of the rebels who used fire signals to announce the beginning of the rebellion against the Roman occupiers.
No matter which aspect you focus on regarding Lag B’Omer, this holiday is a reminder of the fires of the Jewish spirit that reside in us all.