Progressively Speaking: I won’t celebrate Lag B’Omer this year or any other year

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Progressively Speaking: I won’t celebrate Lag B’Omer this year or any other year

Rabbi Danny Rich takes a Jewish issue looks at a Liberal response

Rabbi Danny Rich
Lag Ba'omer bonfire
Lag Ba'omer bonfire

Liberal Jews often face a choice when considering an outdated or irrelevant Jewish tradition: scrap it or reinterpret it in accord with modernity.

Lag B’Omer, never mind the Omer period itself, is a stark example. The origins of this day – which falls this year on 29 April – are unknown, which is perhaps why, with its absence of liturgical and other rituals, many Jews of all denominations treat it as an ordinary workday.

An Omer is a measure of grain. Leviticus 23:15-21 orders Israelite farmers to bring an omer to the Temple each day for seven weeks from the second day of Pesach. The 50th day was its climax with the offering of two loaves of bread: Shavuot.

In ancient times, this period was one of intensive arable harvesting, and, even today, farmers remain dependent on good weather and other factors to ensure a bounteous crop and income for their futures.

Harvesting is therefore a time of anxiety when a family or community’s future may be weighed in the balance. This may be why the whole Omer period became one of semi-mourning, during which it was forbidden to marry, have one’s hair cut and indulge in joyous events.

The most common explanation proffered is that during the Omer period, in the second century BCE, thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s pupils died of plague. If it became the custom for a relatively long period of semi-mourning (49 days), it is quite understandably why its adherents might want a break in the middle.

Lag B’Omer, the day on which the plague was allegedly lifted, is an obvious moment of celebration.

Thus, Lag B’Omer is today in Israel and among more mystical sects of Judaism a day to light bonfires, shoot bows and arrows and visit the cave of the mystic, Shimon Bar Yochai, a leading disciple of Rabbi Akiva. These are perhaps attempts to provide relief from anxiety and offer resistance to forces that might upset the harvest.

In Liberal Judaism, the Omer period is understood as a time of preparation for the transition of a recently enslaved wandering ‘mixed multitude’ (as marked by the Pesach Exodus from Egypt) into a Jewish people with a constitution (the Ten Commandments given at Shavuot).

If the Omer period is such a positive and transformative time for the children of Israel then, in truth, there is no reason for Liberal Jews to commemorate Lag B’Omer at all.

  • Rabbi Danny Rich is a vice president of Liberal Judaism

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