Lag BaOmer origins & meaning
The holiday has been celebrated since at least medieval times, and refers to a few different occurrences in Jewish tradition that are said to have happened on this day:
1. The anniversary of the death of the second-century CE kabbalistic sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, making it a celebration of his work and of mysticism and kabbalah in general
2. The end of a plague that killed the students of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva
3. A brief Jewish military victory against the Roman Empire, led by Simon bar Kokhba
Lag BaOmer is traditionally celebrated with bonfires, as fire represents kabbalah and spirituality, and the mourning practices of the rest of the Omer period are suspended – and therefore parties, weddings, and haircuts are allowed and often take place on this day. Some Jews also travel to visit the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in northern Israel.
In modern times, some people have also used Lag BaOmer as an opportunity to celebrate Jewish pride, unity, and identity – an interpretation that was particularly encouraged by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
As such, bonfires have taken on an additional meaning of representing the Jewish spirit, and some communities also celebrate with parades, parties, or festive meals.
Yet another meaning to the Lag BaOmer bonfires has been added by modern Zionists: a reference to the Simon bar Kokhba victory marked on this day, and the undying spirit of the Jewish rebels fighting their Roman occupiers. The fires are reminiscent of the signal fires that bar Kokhba’s army lit on mountaintops, as well as of the fact that the Romans forbade lighting fires to mark Jewish holidays.
Lag BaOmer has taken on a Zionist meaning in the modern State of Israel and has come to represent the fighting Jewish spirit, as many Israelis focus on and take inspiration from those first-century Judean fighters who longed for independence.
The day has been used as an opportunity to teach Israeli children about the heroism of Simon bar Kokhba, along with songs and celebrations around bonfires and playing with bows and arrows to remember bar Kokhba’s rebel forces.
Given the focus on the historic victory of the Judean rebels, it’s no surprise that the holiday is also associated with the modern Israeli army that continues the same fighting spirit. In fact, fittingly, the Israel Defense Forces were formally established by a government order on Lag BaOmer 1948, while one of their predecessor divisions, the Palmach, was created on Lag BaOmer 1941.
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