Why Celebrate Lag BaOmer?

Halpern Akiva Academy students enjoyed a fun-filled Lag BaOmer sports day at North Glenmore Park on a gorgeous Calgary summer day. Students from all grades were collaborating in cross-curricular games and sports encouraging school spirit, teamwork and leadership skills.

Rabbi Nachum Aaron Kutnowski

By Rabbi Nachum Aaron Kutnowski

(AJNews) – Lag BaOmer is a day of celebration and joy in the Jewish calendar, occurring on the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, the period between Passover and Shavuot. This year it was celebrated from the evening of May 25 to sundown on May 26. Traditionally, this day interrupts a period marked by a solemn mood associated with the tragic deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s twelve thousand pairs of students. Because of this, a custom was established to not get married during this period. However, on Lag BaOmer, the mourning customs are lifted because it is believed that the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students ceased during this day.

Rabbi Chizkiyah da Silva, a seventeenth century Italian Halachaist, raises a critical question regarding the celebrations of Lag BaOmer: Is it appropriate to rejoice simply because the deaths of his students have ceased? After all, none of the original students survived. They all perished. Rabbi Chizkiyah suggests that the joy of Lag BaOmer stems from the five new students Rabbi Akiva developed, who did not suffer the same fate as their predecessors and who carried on the knowledge of the entire Torah to the next generation.

This act of resilience and determination is what we celebrate on Lag BaOmer, the revival of Torah study, the continuation of Rabbi Akiva’s legacy through his new students.

But where did Rabbi Akiva have such inner strength to persevere and rebuild? The source seems to follow a precedent at an earlier point in his life. It is said that Rabbi Akiva embarked on his path to Torah wisdom at the age of forty, commencing from the rudimentary knowledge of the Alef Bet, before attaining his esteemed status as a sage. The catalus that caused his commitment at this juncture to learn Torah was from observing how water was able to erode a stone, concluding that if something soft as water could carve something hard as stone, then surely the words of Torah could penetrate his heart, despite his current limitations.

The life of Rabbi Akiva teaches us that his path to greatness was not linear. Instead, its origin and later years were both marred by trials and tribulations. Yet, his grasp on faith and hope in the transformative power of Torah study allowed Rabbi Akiva to draw on his inner strength and determination to continue being a builder.

On Lag BaOmer, we celebrate Rabbi Akiva’s resilience, his unwavering commitment to Torah, and the enduring legacy he left through his new students. It reminds us that even in the face of adversity, there is always hope for renewal and growth.

Rabbi Kutnowski is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Halpern Akiva Academy in Calgary. Next year, he will be relocating his family to Ontario, Canada, to take on the position of Head of School at Torah Day School of Ottawa.

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