WHAT, WHO & WHY?
Between the second day of Pesach and the day before Shavuot, the Torah asks us to count each of these forty-nine days that the Omer (barley) offering was brought in the Temple. An Omer is a unit of measurement which is sometimes used to mean “sheaf” (i.e. a quantity of grain large enough to require binding).
After the Children of Israel entered the promised land, the Omer was defined by tense anticipation for the crucial, and fragile, wheat crop. Over time, further layers of meaning developed, all interconnected.
The first talmudic passage below contains the origin of the period's traditional mourning practices – no shaving, weddings, etc – and the following ones points to the emergence of the mystical hero, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (also known by his acronym, Rashbi).
Lag B'Omer is the thirty-third day of the Omer ("Lag" means 33). According to tradition, this is the day that R' Akiva's first wave of students stopped dying (see below) and it is also the day that R' Akiva's later student, Rashbi, passed away, in Meron, a village near Tzfat (Sefat) in the Galilee.
Who was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and what are we celebrating?
R' Shimon Bar Yochai was a 2nd-century tannaitic sage in ancient Israel, in the period following the destruction of the Second Temple.
He wrote or contributed to many key early works of Jewish law (Halachah) and is often quoted in the Mishnah (the first code of Jewish law and foundation of rabbinic Judaism).
He studied in the great academies of Yavneh, founded by R' Yochanan ben Zakkai, and Bnei Brak, led by R' Akiva – his principle teacher, who was murdered by the Romans for his faith.
The Talmud relates that after the initial 12,000 pairs of R' Akiva's students died, R' Shimon was part of a small group of students to whom R' Akiva transmitted his teachings.
Later in life, he founded an academy in the town of Tekoa whose students included R' Yehudah HaNassi, who compiled the Mishnah.
Rabbi Shimon and his students are the primary protagonists and teachers in the central work of Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism, the Zohar ('Radiance' or 'Splendor')
This day is observed by many as a Yom Hillula, a day of celebration, and hundreds of thousands of Jews make a pilgrimage to his grave to pray, celebrate and light bonfires.
The bonfires are said by some to represent the inner light of the spiritual Torah, which Rashbi brought to the world.
Whereas Shavuot, which follows the entire Omer period, is a celebration of the revealed Torah, Lag B'Omer is an opportunity to connect with, and appreciate our mystical tradition.
This subject is explored in depth in the Kabbalah Through the Calendar course.
Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 62b
It was said that R' Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students from Gevat to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect.
The world remained desolate until R' Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them.
These were R' Meir, R' Yehuda, R' Yose, R' Shimon and R' Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time.
It is taught that all of [R' Akiva's students] died in the period from Pesach until Shavuot.
Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 67a
R' Shimon would forget little of his studies, and what he removed from his memory, he removed only chaff. And likewise, R' Shimon said to his students: My sons, accept my halachic rulings, as my rulings are the finest rulings of the finest rulings of R' Akiva.
Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 33b
[R' Shimon] and his son [R' Elazar]...went and hid in a cave. A miracle occurred and a carob tree and a spring of water were created for them.
They would remove their clothes and sit up to their necks in sand. The whole day they studied; when it was time for prayers they dressed themselves, covered themselves, prayed, and then took off their clothes again, so that they would not wear out.
They lived in the cave for twelve years.
Then Elijah [the Prophet] came and stood at the entrance to the cave and said: “Who will tell the son of Yochai that the emperor is dead and his decree [against them] annulled?”
They came out. Seeing a man ploughing and sowing, they exclaimed: “They abandon eternal life and engage in temporal life!” Every place they cast their eyes upon was immediately incinerated.
A Divine voice emerged and said to them: “Have you emerged to destroy My world? Return to your cave!” So they returned and lived there another twelve months, saying, “The punishment of the wicked in Gehenna [Purgatory] is limited to twelve months.”
A Divine voice emerged and said, “Leave your cave!”
They left. Wherever R' Elazar would strike, R' Shimon would heal. Said R' Shimon to his son, “My son! You and I are sufficient for the world.”
As the sun was setting on the eve of Shabbat, they saw an old man holding two bundles of myrtle and running at twilight.
“What are these for?” they asked him.
“They are in honor of Shabbat,” he replied.
“But shouldn't one suffice you?” they asked.
“One is for 'Remember [the Shabbat day' (Ex. 20:8)] and one is for 'Keep [the Shabbat day' (Deut. 5:12)].”
R' Shimon said to his son: “See how precious are the mitzvot to Israel!” Their minds were settled.
תלמוד בבלי – יבמות סב:ב
אמרו שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים
היו לו לרבי עקיבא מגבת עד אנטיפרס
וכולן מתו בפרק אחד
מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה
והיה העולם שמם
עד שבא ר"ע אצל רבותינו שבדרום
ר"מ ור' יהודה ור' יוסי ורבי שמעון
ורבי אלעזר בן שמוע
והם הם העמידו תורה אותה שעה
כולם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת
תלמוד בבלי – גיטין סז:א
תנא משכח קימעא
ומה שמוציא אינו מוציא אלא סובין
וכן אמר ר"ש לתלמידיו
בניי שנו מדותי
שמדותי תרומות מתרומות
מידותיו של ר"ע
תלמוד בבלי שבת לג:ב
אזל הוא ובריה...טשו במערתא
איתרחיש ניסא איברי להו חרובא
והוו משלחי מנייהו
והוו יתבי עד צוארייהו בחלא
כולי יומא גרסי
בעידן צלויי לבשו מיכסו ומצלו
והדר משלחי מנייהו
כי היכי דלא ליבלו
איתבו תריסר שני במערתא
אתא אליהו וקם אפיתחא דמערתא
מאן לודעיה לבר יוחי
דמית קיסר ובטיל גזירתיה
נפקו חזו אינשי דקא כרבי וזרעי
אמר מניחין חיי עולם ועוסקין בחיי שעה
כל מקום שנותנין עיניהן
יצתה בת קול ואמרה להם
להחריב עולמי יצאתם
הדור אזול איתיבו תריסר ירחי שתא
אמרי משפט רשעים בגיהנם י"ב חדש
יצתה בת קול ואמרה
כל היכא דהוה מחי ר' אלעזר הוה מסי ר"ש
אמר לו בני די לעולם אני ואתה
בהדי פניא דמעלי שבתא
חזו ההוא סבא דהוה
נקיט תרי מדאני אסא ורהיט בין השמשות
אמרו ליה הני למה לך
אמר להו לכבוד שבת
ותיסגי לך בחד
חד כנגד זכור
וחד כנגד שמור
א"ל לבריה חזי כמה חביבין מצות על ישראל יתיב דעתייהו