Lag Ba’Omer

Lag Ba’Omer is a festive minor holiday celebrated by the people of Israel. The days fall between Passover and Shavuot – usually in May or June. This period of time is known as the “omer.” An omer is an ancient Hebrew measure of grain. It equaled a little over 3 and a half liters of grain.

The book of Leviticus provides the Biblical base for the celebration of this period of time. It would not allow any use of the new barley crop until after an omer was brought in as an offering into the Temple. Leviticus 23:15-16 commanded that from the time of bringing in the offering seven weeks was to be counted and completed.

The forty-nine days of counting would begin on the second day of Passover and end on Shavuot. Lag Ba’Omer is an expression indicating the thirty-third day of the Omer.

Dates for Lag Ba'Omer

Hebrew Dates: 18 Iyar
5776
18 Iyar
5777
18 Iyar
5778
18 Iyar
5779
Gregorian Dates:
(begins sundown, evening before)

May 26
2016

May 14
2017
May 3
2018
May 23
2019

 

History
While the command of counting the omer is a biblical mandate, the celebration of Lag Ba’Omer is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah. It only has hinted reference in the Talmud, ancient rabbinical commentary on the Torah.

The date of Lag Ba’Omer is mentioned specifically in the 13th century by Rabbi Meiri, a writer in the Talmud. In his passage, he states that in the second century, 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died from a divinely sent plague during the counting of the Omer. The Talmud goes on to state that Lag Ba’Omer was named as the day when the plague was supposed to have stopped.

According to the tradition, the plague left Rabbi Akiva with only five students, including Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Bar Yochai would go on to be the greatest teacher of the Torah during his generation. The tradition continues that on the day of his death, Bar Yochai revealed the deepest, most meaningful secrets of the Kabbalah. Lag Ba’Omer became a day of celebration of the wisdom that Bar Yochai brought into the world.

The period of counting the Omer has been seen as a time of solemn thought, almost mournful self-reflection. Weddings and other festive activities are to be avoided. This is to offer reverence to the memory of thousands who were killed during the time of Rabbi Akiva in the second century.

Customs and Rituals
Since there is no biblical command regarding the festival or ritual of Lag Ba’Omer, there is no formal expectation for its celebration. Over the years, several meaningful traditions have emerged.

Because of the depth of scholarship of Bar Yochai, the day has come to celebrate the one who is the student of the Torah. Contests and readings of the Torah highlight the day. It is also the one day of the forty-nine when celebrations may occur. For those wishing to marry in the spring, this is the only day available on the calendar. Many Jews do not cut their hair during this time period. Lag Ba’Omer became a three-year old boy’s first haircut, celebrated with much pomp and circumstance.

Funerals and Jewish Mourning During Lag Ba'Omer
While Lag Ba’Omer was a time celebrating the anticipated bountiful harvest, it was also a somber time of reflection. Agricultural communities were dependent upon successful harvests. Changes in the weather patterns or a harsh weather event could spell disaster for the entire community. This was a precarious time when the farmer spent many hours in prayer for God’s blessing over the growing season. As such, there were many prohibitions of celebrations during this time.

Jewish teaching is very specific about how the deceased should be properly mourned by the family. The most noticeable characteristic of Jewish mourning is the withdrawal of the family to their home following the death of a close relative. In the event a death occurred on Lag Ba’Omer, certain accommodations would be necessary.

Jewish teaching provides very specific guidelines for how the deceased should be properly mourned by the family through defined Periods of Mourning in Judaism.

The Jewish burial has unique and specific requirements; most notably, the burial usually takes place within a couple of days after the death. It is usually a time of stress and busyness for the family, as many decisions and details surrounding the funeral must be considered. A telephone call relaying personal condolences would be welcomed.

Public viewing of the body is against Jewish law and tradition. There is no equivalent to the wake or funeral visitation. Today Jewish funerals are held at a funeral home, synagogue, cemetery building or graveside. Attending a funeral is a demonstration of care and concern for the surviving family and respect for the deceased. Invitations to a funeral are rarely offered, but friends are always encouraged to attend. In Judaism accompanying the family to the gravesite is one of the highest forms of kindness.

After the burial, a period of mourning begins. Shiva (meaning “seven”) consists of seven days of mourning during which family members remain in their home. During shiva the family would stay home from work, refrain from public appearances, and not conduct any business transactions. Friends and family members would reach out to the bereaved by visiting the home to offer comfort and support.

The solemn nature of the counting of the Omer would not disrupt the mourning traditions of shiva. However, during the holiday of Lag Ba’Omer, festivities would disrupt the nature of mourning.  If mourning were past the third day, shiva could be shortened so that celebrations could occur. After Lag Ba’Omer life would return to a somber time, but without the intense restrictions of shiva.

Because of the sensitive nature of the time of loss, a rabbi should be consulted for proper procedures for mourning during the holiday, particularly in complicated situations. The rabbi will take into account the circumstances, traditions and Scripture and offer guidance

Remembering Loved Ones During Lag Ba'Omer
Lag Ba’Omer is a minor festive holiday that falls between Passover and Shavuot. The omer is an ancient Hebrew measure of grain. The time provided moments to reflect upon the goodness of God and the measure of blessing that He has given to His people. The counting was a practical way to watch over the planting, growing and harvest of crops. It was also a spiritual way of taking a similar character inventory.

Because Jewish festivals contain moments of remembrance and family, the minor holiday of Lag Ba’Omer is an appropriate time to honor deceased family members as well. Lasting tributes such as contributions to charities, hospitals or hospices, synagogues or other organizations provide meaningful memorials for departed loved ones.

The tradition of inscribing one’s name in the book of life is a common occurrence in the Jewish faith. Families may visit the cemetery and place a stone at the graveside, plant a tree in Israel or dedicate a name plaque. Other meaningful and appropriate ways to memorialize a loved one include the creation of a Plaque and Memory page online through the National Jewish Memorial Wall (NJMW.org). The inclusion on a memorial or yahrzeit wall is a meaningful way to show honor and respect for the deceased.