Lag Ba’Omer is known as a day of celebration. The day is celebrated in the Land of Israel with prayers, events, special meals and of course – bonfires. Outside of Israel the day is marked by the omission of Tachanun, and sometimes some of the above.
In the present article we will discuss some of the ways in which the day is celebrated, and the halachic issues that can arise in connection to these celebrations.
It is worth adding that the essence of the day is shrouded in mystery. Scholars familiar with the Kabbalah treat it as a highlight of the year. We will focus on the revealed aspects of the day, and leave the hidden aspects to those who know them better.
The Disciples of Rabbi Akiva
The main event commemorated on Lag Ba’Omer is related to the cessation of the dying of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples. The Gemara (Yevamos 62b) teaches that Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 disciples all died during the Omer period. Some are of the opinion that they ceased dying on the thirty third day of the Omer.
Based on this view, the custom is to show elements of mourning only during the first thirty-two (or thirty-three for those who continue to mourn until the morning of day 33, or according to Sephardi custom; see Shulchan Aruch and Rema 493:2) days of the Omer, in recognition of this tragic loss to the nation of Israel. The original Ashkenaz custom follows the opinion that they did not cease dying on Lag Ba’Omer, so that mourning is resumed after Lag Ba’Omer.
The loss was not only a human loss. The loss was also a loss of Torah – the lofty Torah of Rabbi Akiva was to be transmitted by his army of disciples. On account of their failure to show proper respect for one another (as the Gemara states), the expression of this Torah that was to have emerged from them was lost.
Even according to those who maintain that they ceased dying on Lag Ba’omer, the joy of the day is not necessarily on account of the last student having died – but rather on account of the new period in the life of Rabbi Akiva that the day marks. After the last students of this aborted legacy died, he established a new avenue for his legacy in five great sages: Rabbi Meir; Rabbi Yehuda; Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua; Rabbi Yosi; and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Just as we mourn the dimensions of Torah lost through lack of appreciation for one another, so we celebrate the reclaimed dimensions that were made possible by these five disciples (Pri Chadash 493).
The Chasam Sofer (Yoreh De’ah 233) – who was against celebrating the day of Lag Ba’Omer – suggests that the day is special since on this date the Manna began to fall. It is possible that there is a deep connection between the elevated Torah of Rabbi Akiva and his disciples, and the spiritual Manna which fell daily from the Heavens in the desert.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai
There are a number of opinions about which additional events took place on Lag Ba’Omer.
Some write that this is the day on which Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai came out of the cave in which he and his son hid for thirteen years. The tale of their miraculous survival in the cave is narrated by the Gemara and Midrashim (Shabbos 33b; Bereishis Rabbah 79:6; Koheles Rabbah 10:8), but the date of their leaving the cave is not recorded as Lag Ba’Omer until much later (see Bein Pesach Le-Shavuos p. 302).
A more commonly accepted tradition is that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai died on Lag Ba’omer (see Chayei Adam 131:11; Kaf Ha-Chaim 493:26). This raises the question – which is asked by the Sho’el Umeishiv (5:39) – of why the day should be a day of joy: Surely the day on which a great luminary leaves the world is a day of anguish – a day for fasting and penitence (Yoreh De’ah 376:4) and not a day of joy? Shut Shem Aryeh (Orach Chaim 14) answers that on the day of his death, we celebrate Rabbi Shimon’s miraculous survival in the cave: his natural death reminds us of his previous unnatural survival.
However, it is possible that Rabbi Shimon’s death is celebrated because it marks the conclusion of his wondrous life and the passing on of his legacy to future generations. Our initial response to death is of course to mourn the loss. But having recovered from the immediate feeling of loss, we can see that the day of a person’s death marks his achievement and legacy, and not just the sad occasion of his passing.
In particular with regard to the special legacy of Bar Yochai, we can appreciate that the day of his passing is actually cause for celebration. This is because the Zohar writes that on the day Rabbi Shimon passed away, he called his students and revealed great secrets of the Torah to them as related by the Zohar. Therefore, his passing is a day of joy in the secrets of the Torah.
On this theme it is noteworthy that the Rema also died on Lag Ba’Omer, and many have the custom to go to his kever on this day (Bein Pesach Le-Shavuos p. 302; Nitei Gavriel, Pesach 3, p. 278).
The Chida (Birchei Yosef 493:4) writes that the association of the day with Rabbi Shimon’s death is mistaken, and is not in fact the day of his death. He derives this from the fact that in all the writing of Rabbi Chaim Vital, who wrote about the virtues of Lag Ba’Omer, we find no mention of the passing of Bar Yochai on this day. Rather, the Chida explains that the joy of the day is related to the five disciples of Rabbi Akiva who survived, as explained above.
Meron and Lag Ba’omer
The custom to go to Meron on Lag Ba’omer dates back to the times of Rishonim (see Ateres Zekeinim 493; Kaf Ha-Chaim 493:26), and many people try to do so. There is no concrete obligation to go to Meron, but according to some authorities it is a worthy custom – though some authorities frowned on the practice (see Chasam Sofer, Yoreh De’ah 233; Shoel U-Meishiv 5:39).
A common practice is to take a child to Meron for his first haircut after reaching the age of three (see Pardes Yosef, Tazria 13:33, Minhagei Eretz Yisrael 23:13, Nitei Gavriel Pesach 3, p. 316; Halichos Shlomo, Moadim 2, p. 364, note 32). Even among those who wait three years before giving a child his first haircut, some are lenient to give the first haircut in Meron or on Lag Ba’Omer somewhere else even before the third year is complete.
Note that some go to Meron for the child’s haircut even on days other than Lag Ba’Omer (Nitei Gavriel pp. 312-315), whereas others go to the kever of Shmuel to cut the child’s hair (Radvaz 2:608). Here, too, some authorities frown on the idea of taking a child to a kever for the purposes of a haircut (see Mishpetei Tzedek 74).
Haircuts from Lag Ba’Omer
The custom is to refrain from taking a haircut during the mourning period of the Omer. According to the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch (493:2) one may not take a haircut until the thirty-fourth day of the Omer, in the morning.
The Rema, however, rules that one may take a haircut on Lag Ba’omer. Many understand that this refers to the night of Lag Ba’Omer. The fact that Tachanun is not recited on the eve of Lag Ba’Omer indicates that this is already a time of joy (see Be’er Heitev 493:5; Chok Yaakov 6; Elya Rabbah 7; Mishnah Berurah 11). Others rule that the Rema refers to the morning of Lag Ba’Omer (after part of the day has passed we say that “part of the day is considered as the entire day”; see Biur Ha-Gra).
For children, as noted, the universal custom is to be lenient and give the child a haircut on the night of Lag Ba’Omer.
According to the Ashkenazi custom, when Lag Ba’Omer falls on Sunday (as it does this year (5774)) it is permitted to take a haircut on Friday, in honor of Shabbos (Rema). Based on the Mishnah Berurah (260:5) it seems that even when a person is able to take a haircut on Friday, it is not permitted to take a haircut on Thursday night.
Moreover, there is no special permit to take a haircut on Motzaei Shabbas when Lag Ba’Omer falls on Sunday (Bein Pesach Le-Shavuos p. 250, citing Rav Elyashiv zt”l). However, according to authorities who always permit taking a haircut from the night of Lag Ba’Omer, it is permitted to do so even on Motzaei Shabbos (this is ruled explicitly by the Leket Yosher (Sefiras Ha’Omer 9).
Note that the custom of the Arizal was to refrain from taking a haircut for the duration of the Omer period, and some are careful to do this (Shaarei Teshuva 493:8). According to this custom, it is permitted to take a haircut on the eve of Shavuos (Kaf Ha-Chaim 13).
Perhaps the most prominent Lag Ba’Omer custom is lighting bonfires – a ubiquitous custom throughout Israel and even beyond (see Aruch Hashulchan 493:7). The reason for bonfires on Lag Ba’Omer is apparently because when Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai revealed the secrets of the Torah to us, he brought light to the world. Bonfires are therefore lit in his honor.
There is a custom, practiced by some, to throw clothes into the fire. The reason for this is possibly that Bar Yochai did not wear clothes when he was in the cave (apart from davening), and he would cover his body in sand to learn Torah. This practice is noted by the Sedei Chemed (Eretz Yisrael 6).
However, many comment that this involves a prohibition of bal tashchis (see Pischei Teshuvah, Yoreh De’ah 251:4). Today, it seems that nobody practices this custom of throwing clothes into the bonfire.
When Lag Ba’Omer falls on Sunday (as it does this year) the Israel Rabbinate made an enactment to defer the Lag Ba’Omer bonfires and celebrations to Sunday rather than Motzaei Shabbos, in order to avoid violation of Shabbos by police, army officers and others who are involved in the preparations. Though this certainly seems to be a worthy enactment, it has not yet gained broad acceptance.
Fasting and Tachanun
We conclude with the most basic Lag Ba’Omer halachah: It is forbidden to fast on Lag Ba’Omer. Likewise, Tachanun is not recited on Lag Ba’Omer.
Concerning Tachanun in Minchah of the day preceding it, the Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav (493:5) writes that the halachah depends on whether mourning ceases from the night of Lag Ba’Omer, or from the day. However, the Mishnah Berurah (Shaar Ha-Zion 493:12) implies that even if mourning continues into the night of Lag Ba’Omer, Tachanun is not recited at Mincha (see also Chok Yaakov 493:6, who seems to imply that Tachanun is said). The consensus of authorities is not to recite Tachanun at Minchah.
As we know, it is the custom to permit weddings on Lag Ba’Omer – though Ashkenazi custom is to further refrain from weddings for the duration of the Sefira. Somebody getting married on this day should fast (Magen Avraham 573:1 and Mishnah Berurah 573:7).
Wishing all readers a joyous Lag Ba’Omer!