Celebrating Lag B’Omer for Jews Today
Author’s note: Of course, I had no idea when I wrote this column a week ago that we would be witnessing this tragedy. This could have been and should have been foreseen; people have been talking about the overcrowding and poor oversight for years. Nothing can detract from the pain of this disaster. I only pray that lessons will be learned.
This week. we celebrate Lag B’Omer, which is the 33rd day of the Omer that I described two weeks ago.
In Israel, thousands make the pilgrimage to the town of Meron every year to celebrate the anniversary of the death of Shimon Bar Yochai; he was and is one of the most important figures in Judaism, and the fourth most quoted scholar in the Talmud. Prophetic mysticism predated him by a thousand years. But thanks to the Zohar, the seminal book of the Kabbalah, he is universally regarded as the father of Jewish mysticism.
Rabbi Shimon resisted the Roman bans on teaching Torah during the second century, and had to go into hiding with his son. For 12 years, they hid in a cave camouflaged by a carob tree that, together with a spring of water, sustained them.
Meron, in the Galil, was the settlement that Rabbi Shimon lived in 2,000 years ago. Soon after the State of Israel was founded, my father went there on Lag B’Omer and was overwhelmed and inspired by the atmosphere. And when I first went there in the late 1950s, I was too. It was a wonderful experience, of popular mystical joy, celebration, and unity. All groups and sects within traditional Judaism joined together and danced around huge bonfires of and in religious ecstasy. Today it has become the Bonfires of Vanities.
Shimon Bar Yochai must have been a very complex character, and I am sure would have felt very much at home in today’s extreme wings of Orthodox Judaism. Apart from his burning up other Jews for not studying Torah enough, he also said some very nasty things about women and non-Jews: “The best of the idol-worshippers should be killed, the best of snakes should have their heads cut off [he probably meant disloyal Jews] and the most pious of women are witches”( Midrash Mechilta BeShallach). Come to think of it, I know some of his admirers today who still think the same way.
The festive aspect of Lag B’Omer was the innovation of the mystics of Safed, most famously Yitzchak Luria, the Ari, and his amanuensis, Chaim Vital. Initially, it was a Sephardi event, known as the Hillula de Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai — with special songs and festive meals to celebrate him. They also introduced the custom of letting a boy’s hair grow for three years and then cutting it at Rabbi Shimon’s tomb at Meron. They called the ceremony the Haluka and distributed candies and cakes. The European Jews marked Lag B’Omer with bonfires and bows and arrows, probably a nod towards the Jewish rebels who fought against the Romans ( or as some suggested metaphorically, as fighting the evil inclination).
As more and more Hasidim came to Israel in the 19th century, they were guilty of cultural appropriation and began to add their own weird customs. They renamed the Haluka the Yiddish Opsheer or Upsheer, depending on who you are talking to. The Bobov Hassidic dynasty, somewhere around 1912, claimed that if one donates Chai Rotel, eighteen measures called a Rotel, in memory of Shimon Bar Yochai at Meron, they would be blessed with wealth, and childless couples would soon have children. The Rotel, by the way, was an Ottoman measurement. Nowadays, most people think it is Yiddish. Another Hassidic dynasty, the Sadigura, actually managed to buy the tomb from its Sephardi guardians, so that nowadays, its descendants always light up the main bonfire.
As the numbers of the pious of all denominations has increased, so has Meron, from a sleepy village to a center of a huge pilgrimage of people seeking blessings and cures.
And it has gone from being a wonderful spiritual event, to a symbol of everything that is wrong with the materialism, superstition, and politicization that has infected our religious communities.
Meron now is a claustrophobic showbiz event, with VIP rooms, private suites, and personal access, with every minor Rebbe, Rabbi, and charlatan showing off his entourage and influence. Every politician wants to curry favor, making a point of being seen, and they rub shoulders with corrupt oligarchs, and others.
Lag B’Omer ought to remind us of the importance of kabbalah and the need to go back to the mystical experiences that empower individuals to find their ways to God. It can help bring back many who feel alienated from formal, conformist Judaism. It has always been passionate, rebellious, and individualistic Jews who embraced kabbalah, with all the benefits and dangers of misuse and abuse that go with it.
We must reclaim mysticism, genuine mysticism, not the popular new age nonsense that passes for it too often. Of course, established religion doesn’t appreciate individuality. All the more reason to advocate for it.
The author is a rabbi and writing currently living in New York.