Lag Ba’Omer: Between Reality and Essence
Rabbi David Stav
Co-Chancellor, Ohr Torah Stone
What happened on Lag Baomer?
One of the more peculiar holidays in the Jewish calendar is Lag Baomer. Rema (Rav Moshe Isserles, 16th Century Poland) mentions this day as one in which Tachanun is not said, and when we are to be more joyful than usual – but no source for this joy can be found in the world of halacha. To justify this additional measure of joy, we must turn to obscure sources.
Meiri (Rav Menahem Meiri, 13th Century Spain), in his commentary on Tractate Yevamot, cites a source that maintains that on Lag Baomer, the students of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying. We also have sources that declare that the students stopped dying on Pros Ha’atzeret, the 34th day of the Omer (“Lad Boamer”) Many others claim that the students died between Pesach and Atzeret (Shavuot), but that they had only died during 32 days within that period, so the sages decided that after 32 days of the Omer, we would celebrate a day of festivities, even though nothing remarkable had occurred on that specific day (the 33rd of the Omer).
Pri Megadim (Rav Yosef Teomim, 18th Century Ukraine and Germany) summarizes all of the interpretations, concluding that no one really knows what occurred on Lag Baomer.
Hatam Sofer (Rav Moshe Schreiber, 18th Century Germany and Slovakia), after hearing that festivities were held and bonfires were lit in Safed on Lag Baomer, wondered how anyone could dare invent a new holiday for which no source can be found. He adds that this case is not comparable the case of Purim Katan, since that holiday was instituted to show gratitude for events that occurred in certain places, while nothing notable occurred on Lag Baomer!
Shoel Umeshiv (Rav Yosef Nathanson, 19th Century Galicia and Poland) also discusses the problem with inventing holidays, claiming that there are prohibitions from the Torah concerning festivities, as well as the destruction caused by various bonfires, as which occurs at Mount Meron.
The Kabbalists claim that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, who passed away on the 18th of Iyyar (a date which also lacks a reputable source) ordered that people are to celebrate on his “feast day”, which is the date of his death, according to one calculation brought down in the writings of the Arizal (Rav Yitzhak Luria, 16th Century Israel).
This prompts a question by the Hatam Sofer and the Shoel Umeshiv: since when does the anniversary of someone’s death go from being a day of mourning and penitence to one of joy and jubilation? (Hassidic poskim claimed that the joy is not on account of his death, but rather on account of the miracles that happened to him when he was alive; another version is that this was the day he received semichah from Rabbi Akiva).
In the vast majority of cases, Halachic disputes in which Rabbi Shimon was involved are not decided in his favor, except for the case of “davar sh’eino mitkaven”, in which others take his position. (Interestingly, in Hilchot Gittin, Rema rules according to Rabbi Shimon, and everyone immediately attacks him, wondering why he chose to rule in accordance with that opinion).
We will discuss this shortly, but it does seem strange that while Rabbi Shimon is almost completely excluded from the world of practical halacha, we find a holiday that marks his death. The world of halacha does not give the holiday of Lag Baomer any source or justification, whereas the Kabbalistic and mystical worlds shed an extraordinary amount of light on its nature.
We often feel that halacha is the be-all and end-all, and that rulings are the absolute and only truth. However, we need to keep in mind that though at times we may need to conduct ourselves in a certain way, there are additional truths that dwell in more mystical realms. Similarly, there are matters tied to the creation of the world and the will of God that can’t be revealed in our reality (“The Holy One Blessed Be He wished to create the world in the attribute of justice, he looked… and he filled the world with the attribute of mercy.”).
We live in the world of deeds, and in our reality, we need to conduct ourselves in a certain way, even though the inner truth is sometimes different. We also need to remember that we will continue considering the inner essence of the world and its profundities.
The death anniversary of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai is also his feast day specifically because his position isn’t accepted in this world – and we are not to follow his vision in this world – but in the world to come, his position will be followed. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai sees the inner aspect of things – the more correct aspect. However, we are not to follow his method in this world. A heavenly host is joyously awaiting his arrival.
When Moshe Rabbeinu passed away, 3,000 halachot were forgotten. This is because according to halacha, the anniversary of one’s death is also a day of emptiness. However, on the day that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai passed away, we become enlightened with the understanding that there are matters that go beyond what we can see, and that death is more than just the tragedy and emptiness that are expressed in our reality.
Lag Baomer and Purim
Rav David Abudirham (14th Century Spain), quoted by the Tur, uses a complex method of interpretation to derive the holidays from the days of Passover, and concludes that Purim corresponds to the sixth day of Passover, as does Lag Baomer. What is the connection between Purim and Lag Baomer?
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai said that he could spare the entire world [from judgment], and we also find that no rainbows were sighted while he was alive, since he was able to provide an inner view into the phrase “in any case, [all of mankind] are called children,” and he did so by virtue of his inner fortitude. His glance would tear down the external and circumstantial barriers between people”.
Lag Baomer is reminiscent, to some extent, of Purim, as Purim is a holiday that tries to probe the inner sanctum of humanity, and to remove all of the external barriers between people, and between people and God.
We are told, in the name of the Rebbe of Sanz, that “Yom Kippur is almost the same as Purim, and Purim is almost the same as Lag Baomer.” On Yom Kippur, we beg forgiveness from the standpoint of the Divine attribute of justice, which we recognize through sin, and we try to distance ourselves from sin. On Purim, we ask for a natural teshuvah, claiming that we weren’t serious about committing the sin (see Tractate Megillah 12a: “they only pretended to worship, and he also only pretended to exterminate them…”).
On Lag Baomer, equipped with an inner vision that reassures us that everything is alright, there is no need for fear, or any need for teshuvah from the Divine attribute of justice, and there is no need for teshuvah from the standpoint of the Divine attribute of mercy, because everything becomes clear, and the goodness of our inner nature is revealed.
Lag Baomer is celebrated primarily by the masses – the “commoners”, and less so by scholars, because this is a day that lifts up the common man. It removes the built-in hierarchies in our reality, and tries to draw nearer to the inner reality and to the inner essence of every soul in this world.
The gap between the world of halacha, which does not comprehend the essence of this day, and could not find any reason for merriment, and Hassidic literature, which placed Lag Baomer above Yom Kippur and Purim, is akin to the gap that existed within Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai’s character.
Rabbi Shimon’s position was not accepted into the world of revealed halacha, since he dwelt in an inner reality that is not yet revealed in this world. However, by virtue of having founded Torat Hasod (the Secret Torah) and the Kabbalah, and he thus occupies the highest position. Rabbi Shimon claims that “whatever is ready to be thrown is to be regarded as if it had already been thrown”, because even matters that have not been revealed in our reality are already revealed in Rabbi Shimon’s reality.
Atchalta Degeula – The Beginning of Redemption
Moshe Rabbenu’s generation is the generation of halachic scholarship, and the generation of the patriarchs is a generation of essence. The generation of the Mashiach is the generation of the inner and most essential qualities, and so is the case for Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. As historical processes continue to advance, we peer into the inner nature of things, and don’t suffice with their external appearance.
Lag Baomer occurs during the month of Iyyar, a month entirely made up of holidays that the outer, halachic world is incapable of perceiving as the inner vision would. The Zionist movement, the establishment of a secular state, and the external secular rebuilding of this country were difficult processes, and many great Jewish sages saw them as terrible occurrences that should be opposed. This month is one that requires an inner vision, like that of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai.
We could simply look at the external aspect of the holiday – the bonfires and the wood, the destruction and the burning – but we should also pay attention to the inner phenomena associated with it: the light that breaks out and draws in the common folk, who always understand inner truths before the great sages. Those “commoners” saw a profound and expansive process unfolding, which would lead to a renaissance of the Torah and the entire nation.
(Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor)