Yesterday, Tuesday, May 12th was the holiday of Lag Ba’Omer. It falls on the 33rd day of counting the Omer. By combining the Hebrew letter lamed, which has a numerical value of 30, and gimmel, whose numerical value is three – the holiday gets its name.
There are various explanations for why we note this minor festival day that is not mentioned in Torah. One suggests that a plague which caused the death of thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students ended on Lag Ba’Omer. Thus, Lag Ba’Omer is a day to pay tribute to Talmudic scholars who were in mourning during a crisis that caused much sadness in their community.
Lag Ba’Omer became part of popular Jewish practice only as a result of the Zionist movement. Prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, observant Jews in Palestine honored Talmudic scholars on Lag Ba’Omer by lighting torches and singing songs. For young Zionists of the time, those same fires and songs honored young members of the Palmach (the elite underground fighters during the British Mandate for Palestine), who fought to defend a state that was, at the time, only a dream. It became a day of celebration and joy amidst the mournful seven weeks that surrounded it.
Under normal circumstances, Israelis would gather at public celebrations around large bonfires for a night of singing and celebration. Yet these are not normal times, and celebrations of all kinds are cancelled, postponed or held in very small gatherings of immediate family. This year, Lag Ba’Omer is a reminder of Jewish resiliency, just as it was in the early days of the building of the State of Israel. We can still mark the holiday with Torah study, acts of tzedakah and maybe even a DIY home haircut! Many observant Jews do not cut their hair during the period of counting the Omer because they consider it a time of mourning. Yet, Lag Ba’Omer is traditionally a time when boys, at the age of 3, receive their first haircut, with much festivity surrounding the event. With our own hair salons still closed, Lag Ba’Omer gives Jewish meaning to something many of us have been considering (or trying to avoid!) — Please do not undertake this particular activity if you have no previous experience!!!
In all seriousness, this week, as we complete our reading of the Book of Leviticus, the words hazak, hazak, v’nithazek, be strong, be strong, and let us be strengthened, are a reminder to not let down our guard. We must continue to be vigilant in maintaining the measures required during this health crisis to ensure our well-being. To the extent possible, stay home, stay safe, and may we all remember that this too shall pass.