1) What distinguishes the day of Lag Ba’Omer?
Our sages singled out the day of Lag Ba’Omer as a joyous occasion for two primary reasons (among others). First, it was on this day that the deadly plague that killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s (ca.50 – ca.135)students ended. All 24,000 students perished during this period between Pesah and Lag Ba’Omer, but the five greatest students were spared. On Lag Ba’Omer, Rabbi Akiva conferred upon them semicha (ordination), designating them as the link to the future that would ensure the accurate transmission of the Oral Law to the next generations. To celebrate the survival of these great sages and their consequent ability to transfer the mesora (religious tradition), the sages instituted this day as a day of joy and celebration.
Others attribute the festivity of this day to the ancient tradition that on Lag Ba’omer Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai (ca. 80 – ca. 160), author of the holy Zohar, the principal text of Kabbalistic teaching, was laid to rest and ascended to heaven. It says in the Zohar that this was a day of immense joy and should be celebrated each year as a festive occasion. Interestingly enough, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai (who is also commonly referred to by the acronym “Rashbi”) was one of the five great students of Rabbi Akiva who survived, and, as such, he is doubly responsible for the great happiness of this day. So much so, that the Kabbalists refer to Lag Ba’Omer as “Yom Simhat HaRashbi – The Day of Celebration of the Rashbi.”
2) What is the source for the custom to visit the gravesite of Rashbi on Lag Ba’omer?
The custom to frequent Rashbi’s gravesite on Lag Ba’omer is well over six centuries old. Already then, great sadikim and their students would celebrate Lag Ba’Omer at the tombstone of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai in Meron, a mountain in Northern Israel near Sefat. Probably the most famous of these was the holy kabbalist the Arizal (Rabbi Yishak Luria Ashkenazi, 1534-1572). The Arizal is said to have traveled all the way from Egypt with his entire family to celebrate Lag Ba’Omer at the grave of Rashbi in Meron and fulfilled the age-old custom of cutting the hair of his three-year-old son at this time. The Arizal’s students recorded many stories and amazing revelations that occurred during his visit, describing how their teacher was able to see the Rashbi himself hovering over them and participating in their joy. They even told that during the dancing at the site, an old man whom they did not know joined them in the circle, and when their teacher noticed him, he left the group and danced alone with that elderly stranger. The Arizal later divulged that this man was none other than Rashbi himself, who came to join them in their dancing.
Many other great Sephardic luminaries such as the Or Hahayim Hakadosh (Rabbi Haim Ben Attar, 1696-1743), the Hida (Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azulay, 1724-1806) and the Ben Ish Hai (Rabbi Yosef Haim of Baghdad, 1833-1909) would also frequent the Rashbi’s gravesite on Lag Ba’Omer. Over time, the event began drawing larger crowds, and many people report having experienced amazing salvations from all different situations as a result of the tefilot they prayed at the holy site on Lag Ba’Omer.
3) What distinguished Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai from the other five students of Rabbi Akiva?
The Talmud relates that Rabbi Shimon and his son, Rabbi Elazar, were forced to flee from the Roman authorities, and they hid in a cave in a desolate area near the town of Modien in northern Israel. They remained there for 13 years, subsisting on nothing more than boxer and water that miraculously appeared at the entrance to the cave. The Rashbi and his son spent this entire 13-year period completely engrossed in Torah learning, and Eliyahu Hanavi visited them twice a day to teach them Torah. This extended period of learning with such intensity, purity and holiness for 13 consecutive years brought the Rashbi to such a high level that all the secrets of the hidden Torah were revealed to him. He was granted permission to transmit this wisdom to his students, and this material became the basis of his famous work, the holy Zohar, which has ever since served to illuminate the Jewish people’s understanding of the holy Torah.
Thus, while all five of Rabbi Akiva’s students were undoubtedly towering sages, the Rashbi, due to the exceptional circumstances in which he studied Torah, attained a special stature that set him apart from the rest.
4) Why do some people observe a custom to shoot a bow and arrow on Lag Ba’omer?
Several different reasons have been given for this custom (which is especially common among Hassidic courts). One reason relates to the tradition mentioned in the Talmud that there was never a keshet (rainbow) in the sky during the lifetime of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. The appearance of a rainbow serves as a symbol indicating that the generation deserves annihilation, thus requiring a rainbow to appear as a reminder of Gd’s covenant to Noah that He would never again destroy the earth. During Rabbi Shimon’s lifetime, his merit protected the entire world and such a situation therefore never arose. There was thus never a need for a rainbow as a reminder of Gd’s covenant to avoid the destruction of mankind. We commemorate this protection afforded by the Rashbi on his yahrtzeit with the keshet vahess (bow and arrow), which resembles and uses the same terminology (keshet) as a rainbow.
5) What is the reason for the custom to light huge bonfires on the day of Lag Ba’omer?
The bonfires represent giant “candles” commemorating the passing of the Rashbi on Lag Ba’omer. He served as a source of great light to the Jewish nation by illuminating for us the secrets of the Torah and compiling the Zohar Hakadosh (which literally means, “The Holy Radiance”), and the custom thus developed to light bonfires and dance around them singing songs about the Rashbi’s holiness and greatness.
6) Do we recite tahanun (supplications) on Lag Ba’omer?
The poskim (halachic authorities) write that we do not recite the tahanun prayer during the shaharit and minha services on Lag Ba’omer because this day has been designated as a joyous occasion, when it would be inappropriate to mention our sins. The Kaf Hahayim writes that this applies only on Lag Ba’Omer itself, and not on the 34thday of the omer, even though opinions maintain that Rabbi Akiva’s students first stopped dying on the 34thday of the omer.
7) May we shave and take haircuts already on Lag Ba’omer?
The Shulhan Aruch writes that one may not take a haircut until the morning of the 34thday of the omer – meaning, the morning after Lag Ba’omer – because students of Rabbi Akiva died on the 33rdday, and even through the night after the 33rdday. Others, however, argue and say that the deaths ended already on the morning of Lag Ba’Omer, and thus one may take a haircut from then. The custom among the Sephardim follows the Shulhan Aruch’s ruling, and we thus begin shaving and taking haircuts only on the morning after Lag Ba’omer.
8) If Lag Ba’Omer falls on Friday, may we shave and take haircuts before Shabbat?
The Shulhan Aruch writes that in this case, we may already take haircuts on Friday in honor of Shabbat.
9) Is it permissible to celebrate weddings and listen to music on Lag Ba’omer?
Different views exist regarding weddings and music on Lag Ba’Omer. The Sephardim follow the opinion of the Shulhan Aruch that weddings are only permitted on the 34thday, the day after Lag Ba’omer. However, for music the custom was always that already from the 33rd day, we can begin listening in honor of Rashbi.
10) Generally, is the yom hilula of a deceased sadik considered a happy day?
Undoubtedly, the anniversary of a sadik’s passing is a sad occasion for all of us, and Jewish literature is full of various customs by many to fast on the yom hilula of great sadikim.
In the case of the Rashbi’s yahrtzeit, however, the custom has become to celebrate, and several reasons have been given to explain this practice, the most common of which is that although the passing of a sadik is a devastating loss for us in this world, the heavens are extremely joyful and uplifted when the sadik joins them. Since Rabbi Shimon died on a happy day (Lag Ba’omer), when we may not exhibit signs of sadness, it became customary to instead celebrate for the joy experienced in the heavens on this day.