Thought for the Week: The Innovation of Lag B’Omer

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 24 May 2016

In its letter-I themed series, the TV show QI had a special ‘nobody knows’ joker, to be played when the answer to a question was, ‘Nobody knows’.  Such a card would get lots of use in a Jewish version of QI.  There are many aspects of our tradition that we can’t fully account for.

One of these is the celebration of Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer (the 50 days between Pesach and Shavuot) which falls today.  Marked, especially in Israel, with the lighting of bonfires, and a day of particular significance for kabbalists, ‘nobody knows’ when or how the 33rd day became a day of celebration.  The day is first noted as significant in the 13th century by the Spanish Talmud commentator Menachem Meiri, but the first evidence of it being a day of celebration doesn’t come until the 17th century.
It is only relatively recently, in Jewish terms, that it comes to be associated with two events that you will find as ‘explanations’ for the day – a pause in the spate of deaths among Rabbi Akiva’s students (a story described in the Babylonian Talmud without mentioning Lag B’Omer), and the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who is said (though he didn’t) to have written the Zohar.

So what are we to make of this mysterious day?
As Progressive Jews, one of the most important things Lag B’Omer can remind us is that Judaism can be a living, innovating religion.  Despite the opposition of some authorities, such as the 18th-19th Century Chatam Sofer, Lag B’Omer became a part of the Jewish calendar despite not being found in the bible, not being found in classical rabbinic literature.  Here was a pure example of religious innovation in Jewish life.

In fact, the whole period of the Omer and Shavuot is, as Rabbi Stephen Fuchs has written, a great example of Reform Jewish thinking – a biblical agricultural ritual which is overlaid with new spiritual meanings in order to allow it to resonate for a new generation.  As Fuchs has written, “we must always be eager to embrace opportunities to make our traditions and celebrations speak more meaningfully… When we do, let us rejoice that the process of continually “reforming” Judaism is wholly consistent – and not at odds – with the process by which our rabbinic sages enabled Judaism to speak to the realities of their time and place.”