Lag b’Omer, literally meaning the 33rd day of the Omer, is the one day of festivities in the midst of the 49 days of semi-mourning between Passover and Shavuot.
In biblical times, this bridge period between our Exodus from Egypt and the Divine revelation at Sinai comprised joyous days of the omer grain offering and a daily countdown of anxious expectation – “And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow after the Festival [of Passover], the day that you bring the grain [omer] of the wave offering, seven complete Sabbaths shall there be. To the morrow after the seventh Sabbath week shall you number 50 days.” (Leviticus 23:15-16). Nevertheless, the ironies of history cast a tragic cloud over this seven-week period, when 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva one of the greatest sages of the Mishnah, were felled by a plague.
The talmudic sage Rav Nachman gives the cause of this scourge as askara, which most commentaries explain as a plague of diphtheria. Others suggest it comes from the Greek sikarii, or sword, referring to the tragic defeat of the Bar Kochba rebellion against Rome – a rebellion that was supported by Rabbi Akiva and his disciples. Whatever the physical reason for their deaths, the Talmud definitively provides the moral cause of their downfall: “They did not accord each other proper respect” (B.T. Tractate Yevamot 62b).
It may be difficult to conceive that a mere lack of mutual respect should make the best and the brightest deserve such an extreme punishment, but the halachic reality of our daily lives has turned a biblical and climatic period bursting with new beginnings and new crops into a period of devastation – with no weddings, no social gatherings, no proper grooming.
But there’s one day when all this changes: Lag b’Omer. On that day, on the hill near Montefiore’s Windmill in the heart of Jerusalem, streams of couples spend the day posing for the videographers and their cameras. It’s not just the caterers and musicians and photographers who throw themselves into the charged atmosphere of the day; it’s the barbers, the entertainers and the myriad youngsters of all ages who are enchanted by bonfires replete with snacks, songs and stories.
But when all is said and done, what exactly is the nation celebrating? Tradition has it that only on Lag b’Omer did the disciples of Rabbi Akiva not die. Big deal! What an anti-climax. Why such universal celebration because of a temporary respite of 24 hours from the plague? Even with this brief recess, the next day, 500 more sages lost their lives, as did 500 more every day thereafter until Shavuot.
A cynic can always ask: what’s the significance of 500 less dead bodies when 24,000 corpses had to be buried? The answer is that every human life is of inestimable value. Apparently, the disciples of Rabbi Akiva didn’t understand this fundamental Jewish truth, and, therefore, did not sufficiently respect each other, causing their colleagues pain and embarrassment. Subsequent generations had to learn to venerate and celebrate the fragility and dignity of life.
Rabbi Mark Fishman is assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Tikvah in Montreal.