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May 2, 2018 11:12 am

Lag Ba’Omer Guide for the Perplexed, 2018

avatar by Yoram Ettinger

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A Lag Ba’Omer bonfire. Photo: Yaakov Lederman / Flash90.

Lag Ba’Omer (ל”ג בעומר) is celebrated on the 33rd day following the first day of Passover (in Jewish numerology: ל=30, ג=3). It commemorates the victory of Shimon Bar-Kokhbah over the occupying military force of the Roman Empire; the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai (a key supporter of the Bar Kokhbah revolt), who commanded his disciples to rejoice on his memorial days; and the end of the plague, which took the lives of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples (who were, allegedly, engaged in bad-mouthing each other, which is one of the worst offenses according to Judaism). Lag Ba’Omer is the only day of happiness during the 50 days of soul-cleansing between Passover (commemorating the liberation from the Egyptian Bondage) and Shavou’ot/Pentecost (receiving the Torah and the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai).

Lag Ba’Omer is celebrated in the same week when the reading of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) highlights the Jubilee — the Biblical core of liberty — which is celebrated every 50 years and inspired the Early American Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers of the 50 States in the US. Hence, the inscription on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10).

The Hebrew meaning of Bar-Kokhbah (בר כוכבא) is the son (בר) of star (כוכב), reflecting his leadership and heroism, which produced — ostensibly — a short-term military victory, but it highlights (like a shining star) the long-term victory of the ancient Jewish people and values over the vanished Roman Empire.

The 132-135 AD Shimon Bar-Kokhbah revolt, against the Roman Emperor, Hadrian, is known as the Third Jewish-Roman War. It followed the First Jewish-Roman War (the Great Revolt), which took place from 66-73 AD, involved the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD and ended with the fall of Masada. The Second Jewish-Roman War (the Kitos War) lasted from 115-117 AD, when Jewish warriors rebelled against the Roman Empire in Cyrenaica, Cyprus, Mesopotamia and Egypt.

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The Bar-Kokhbah revolt erupted in response to the desecration of Jerusalem by Hadrian, who was determined to erase Judaism from human memory. Therefore, he erected a new city, Aelia Capitolina, on the ruins of Jerusalem, naming it after himself (Aelius Hadrian) and the chief Roman god, Jupiter (Jupiter Capitolinus). He erected a pagan Temple to Jupiter on the site of the Jerusalem Jewish Temple and outlawed Jewish prayers, the celebration of Jewish holidays and the performance of Jewish rituals, such as the B’rith (circumcision of eight-day-old male babies) that dates back to Abraham, the Patriarch.

The Bar Kokhbah revolt yielded a brief period of Jewish independence, but exacted a toll of 600,000 Jews killed (proportionally, worse than the 20th-century Holocaust), the destruction of Jerusalem, the devastation of most of the country, the massive expulsion of Jews from the Land of Israel, and the enslavement — in exile — of many Jews.

The Bar Kokhbah Revolt was crushed on the Ninth Day of the Jewish month of Av (the date of the destruction of both Jerusalem Jewish Temples) by a formidable Roman military force. Emperor Hadrian himself visited the battlefield, which included eleven legions and their auxiliaries. Most notably, among those summoned, were Gaius Julius Severus, the Governor of Britain and the 35,000 soldiers of his 10th Legion.

The spiritual leader of the Bar-Kokhbah revolt — who reinforced the critical need to sustain Jewish identity and values, at all cost — was Rabbi Akiva, one of the leading sages in Jewish history, who coined the term: “Love thy friend [neighbor] as yourself is a sublime Torah statute.” Rabbi Akiva was one of the ten leading Jewish Sages (the Ten Royal Martyrs), who were executed by the Romans for teaching Judaism. Rabbi Akiva was punished by an especially egregious treatment: his skin was flayed with iron combs.

Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai, a chief disciple of Rabbi Akiva, was a key supporter of the Bar-Kokchbah Revolt, who was born and died 33 days following the first day of Passover (Lag Ba’Omer). He escaped the wrath of Hadrian, hiding in a cave for thirteen years. Bar-Yochai is perceived to be the author of The Zohar (splendor and radiance in Hebrew) — the foundation of Jewish mystical thought/Kabbalah, that provides a unique interpretation of the Torah, based on literal meaning, hint/allusion, anagogical and mystical meanings.

The Bar-Kokhbah Revolt was centered in Beitar, Herodion, Beth El and the Judean Desert in the region of Judea, adjacent to Jerusalem.

Attempting to eradicate Judaism from the face of the earth, Hadrian changed the name of Judea to Syria-Palestinae, referring to the Philistines (who emigrated from the Greek Aegean Islands to settle the southern coast of the Land of Israel), who were persistent and rough enemies of the Jewish people.

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