by Rabbi Robyn Frisch
This article originally appeared on Kveller.
What do bonfires, weddings and carob have in common? They’re all connected to the holiday of Lag b’Omer.
While you may have never heard of this holiday, Lag b’Omer is popular and widely beloved in Israel — and it’s time we Americans learned to enjoy it, too. Below are suggestions of some fun ways to do so.
But first, a little bit of history about this unusual holiday, which this year begins on Thursday night April 29. Lag b’Omer is the 33rd day of the Omer, a seven-week period that begins on the second evening of Passover. During this time, we count each day until the holiday of Shavuot begins. While the Omer connects two joyous holidays — Passover, which celebrates freedom from slavery, and Shavuot, which celebrates the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai — the Omer is a period of semi-mourning.
According to the Talmud, the central text of rabbinic Judaism, many years ago during the Omer, God caused a plague that killed thousands of the students of the great Rabbi Akiva. Why? We’re told that Rabbi Akiva’s students weren’t treating each other with respect. Today we remember these students and their punishment during this time. However, on the 33rd day of the Omer — yes, Lag b’Omer — God brought the plague to an end. That means it’s time to party.
Of course, in true Jewish tradition, there are other backstories to Lag b’Omer as well. The holiday is also connected to a disciple of Rabbi Akiva — whom, it’s worth mentioning, was a supporter of Bar Kochba, who led a ferocious but unsuccessful revolt against Roman rule in 132 BCE.
This disciple, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, fled from the Roman rulers in Jerusalem. Legend has it that he spent years hiding in a cave, sustained only by a well of water and a carob tree. A famed mystic, Shimon Bar Yochai allegedly died on Lag b’Omer. In Israel, hundreds of thousands of Hasidic Jews make pilgrimages to his tomb in Meron on this date. They celebrate his life by partying up a storm.
Among less observant Jews in Israel, Lag b’Omer is generally an excuse for friends and family to get together and have a bonfire. In the early evening on the holiday, many people light fires and cook all sorts of campfire foods, like hot dogs, baked potatoes and marshmallows roasted on a stick. Even if you’re not an outdoorsy type of person, trust me when I say it’s lots of fun.
Fortunately, you can celebrate Lag b’Omer even if you’re not in Israel. This year, as we continue to inch closer to the end of a modern-day plague, I encourage everyone to find meaning and joy in celebrating the end of a different plague that occurred many years ago.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.