Monday, May 11, 2009

Lag B'Omer

Tonight is the beginning of Lag B'omer, a holiday I've never celebrated before and I hardly ever noticed was a part of the Jewish calendar. But it is apparently a pretty big deal here. I asked a lot of Israelis at school today what they do for Lag B'omer, and the answers all were the same: set things on fire. Yes, Lag B'omer is the holiday for bonfires, for wrapping potatoes and onions into the fire and then eating them cooked and whole. It used to be the holiday for singing Israeli songs, but now it is more often the holiday for marshmallows (a concept brought over from the US) and barbecues. I suppose it might also be thought of as the start of summer.
Daniel and I stopped by the Har El bonfire to eat an onion, visit with some preschoolers, and see what it was all about. It was really fun - some singing, some eating, some chatting, some Israeli dancing. On the way home from school today I saw a giant fire in an Israeli neighborhood and it looked pretty dangerous to me, but the Har El one seemed relatively reasonable.
Since I'm talking about Lag B'omer, let me give you a little information abou the holiday, as my guess is that you also don't know too much about it:
In Leviticus 23:15-16 we are told to count seven complete weeks from the day after Passover and ending with the festival of Shavuot on the 50th day of the "counting of the Omer" The counting of the omer is to keep track of the time between the wheat and barley harvests in Israel, and also the time between the Exodus from Egypt and receiving the Torah. Lag B'Omer is the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer. According to Talmudic tradition, during the days of Rabbi Akiva 24,000 students of his died during a plague, which supposedly ended on the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer - so one explanation for Lag B'Omer is that it celebrates the cessation of the plague. Lag B'omer is also supposedly the yartzheit, or anniversary of the death, of Rabbi Yonatan Bar Yochai, a student of Rabbi Akiva's who survived the plague. According to tradition, Bar Yochai revealed the secrets of the Kabalah on the day of his death, and so Lag B'omer is a celebration of the Kabalah. (thanks, wikipedia!)
During the counting of the Omer, many life-affirming activities such as shaving, getting married, and having sex, are forbidden, but on Lag B'omer they are permitted, so it is a big celebratory holiday. It is also a custom for many Jews to make a pilgramage to Mt. Meron to the tomb of Rabbi Yonatan Bar Zochai. Also, many Orthodox Jews perform the first hair cut of their 3-year-old boys on Lag B'Omer. You can read here about celebrations at Mt. Meron. Thousands of Orthodox Jews head to Mt. Moriah, and thousands of secular Jews light their own bonfires all over the country. You can read here about environmentalists who are upset about all the fumes.

You can check out some pictures of our Lag B'Omer experience here.


Elyse Crane said...

Thanks for such an illuminating account! I so enjoy the way you take your readers along on your walks and bus trips.

By the way, how appealing (no pun intended) was the roasted onion?

Jessica said...

It was surprisingly quite good!