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    The unusual Yom-Tov

    Lag BaOmerMany factors make Lag Ba’Omer a yom-tov like no other.

    We are not certain when it took hold of the Jewish spirit. We are unsure as to the real reason which brought it into being.

    It falls during a time of semi-mourning which is calculated in various ways. It has few liturgical customs. It is a break in the sombre mood of the Omer period, during most of which we do not celebrate weddings.

    Unlike every other yom-tov, it centres neither on the synagogue or the home but rather in the fields and forests, with bonfires, picnics and sports – especially archery.

    The bows and arrows presumably recall the fact that Rabbi Akiva’s students, fighting against the Romans, suffered from a plague that lifted on this day.

    A second explanation – when the Romans banned the study of Torah, children would go to their lessons carrying bows and arrows so that any Roman sentry who saw them would think they were on the way to an outdoor picnic or to play sport.

    Lag Ba’Omer is also the yahrzeit (death anniversary) of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (2nd century) who is regarded as the author of the mystical work, the Zohar. “Bow” is keshet, which is also a rainbow, which in the story of Noah is a symbol of peace (Gen. 9:11-17). It is said that no rainbow appeared while Rabbi Shimon was alive. His righteousness was itself a guarantee that peace would come.

    The bonfires may derive from the Romans interference with the Jewish practice of lighting signal fires to mark the coming of a new month, so in later centuries a bonfire symbolised the right to religious and national freedom.

    Another possibility is that the kabbalistic passion which attached such importance to Lag Ba’Omer was a fiery form of spiritual exhilaration.

    The Talmud reports that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son fled from the Romans and lived in a cave for 13 years, studying and meditating.

    When they emerged they were shocked at the banality of the world around them – whatever the rabbi looked at burst into flames – so they were sent back to the cave for another year until they realised that commonplace living was not to be despised.

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