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    Lag Ba’Omer & its paradoxes

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in the Sydney Jewish Report, April 2021 and in the Jerusalem Post on 23 April 2021.

    A minor festival with a mixture of sadness and joy.

    Lag Ba’Omer is a turning point in the 49-day counting of the Omer. It is the 33rd (lamed – 30, and gimmel – 3) day of the Omer period and marks a break in the difficult campaign of Rabbi Akiva’s followers against the Roman overlords.

    It is said that what wrought havoc amongst the Akiva army was the disunity amongst its members who, according to the Talmud, were uncivil towards each other and were punished by a throat illness that threatened their numbers.

    Because the epidemic let up halfway through the campaign, the 33rd day of the Omer, working out at 18th Iyyar, was celebrated as a day of relief.

    The tragedy of the time was marked in Jewish life by the avoidance of weddings and days of entertainment, but on Lag Ba’Omer the restrictions were lifted. Not just because of the Akiva connection but because the whole period was punctuated in history by a whole series of tragedies, part of the long, sad record of Jewish tears and tribulations. Examples range from the attack of Amalek in the wilderness to the Chmielnicki massacres in Eastern Europe.

    Two rabbis are especially involved with the Lag Ba’Omer story, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

    Rabbi Akiva backed the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans but, being Akiva, he was dedicated not only to nationalistic but intellectual concerns.

    The loss of thousands of his students meant either that his educational work would disintegrate or that he had to start over again. He chose the second option and exemplified the Talmudic teaching that a teacher had to raise up disciples both when he was young and even when his youth was gone.

    One of his new generation of disciples was Yehudah ben Bava who was ordained on Lag Ba’Omer. Yehudah unfortunately became one of the ten rabbinic martyrs, described as great as the cedars of Lebanon, who were martyred by the Romans.

    Shimon bar Yochai was a student of Akiva. The kabbalists marked his Yahrzeit (hillula) on Lag Ba’Omer. He is regarded as the author of the mystical Zohar.

    The Yahrzeit is the occasion for a celebration at Mount Meron: the celebration marks the annual elevation of a departed soul to a higher rung in Gan Eden.

    It is said that no rainbow appeared whilst Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was alive. His righteousness was a guarantee that peace would come.

    He is a symbol of the proud Jewish spirit which motivated the struggle against the Romans.

    It took many centuries but eventually the reborn State of Israel revived the Shimon and Akiva spirit.

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