Today is the minor holiday of Lag B’Omer, the 33rd Day of the Omer, the seven week period that spans the weeks between Passover and Shavuot.
There are a few associations for this holiday. One is that it is the traditional yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a Talmudic rabbi known for his deep knowledge and mystical powers. A story is told how he, in hiding from the Roman authorities, spent 12 years in a cave with his son learning Torah and Jewish wisdom. When he emerged, he ended up setting fire to the world around him, and he needed to be sent back into the cave to settle down. To mark the anniversary of his death, it has become customary to visit his grave in northern Israel and to light bonfires symbolizing both his power and the light of Torah and tradition.
[Last year I was in Jerusalem on Lag B’Omer, and it was a crazy scene of people collecting large piles of wood—mostly pallets—and bringing them to empty lots where families and communities would gather for bonfires and picnics.]
Another story in the Talmud gives a different association for this day: it is told that a plague wiped out many students at the academies of the time, and many prominent scholars died. It was on Lag B’Omer that the plague ended, and so the day has become one of celebration.
This association with the plague is what leads the period of the Omer to be considered a period of semi-mourning, and that traditional observance is to refrain from holding celebrations such as weddings during these weeks, at least up to Lag B’Omer. There is also the custom of not shaving or cutting one’s hair.
I don’t generally treat the period as a mourning period, but I do maintain the practice of not shaving or cutting my hair. At sundown last night I went into the bathroom and emerged newly shorn. For me, while the story of the plague is may not be a compelling motivator for spiritual practice, the idea behind it is.
As mentioned, the Omer is the period on the Jewish calendar between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. Passover, which marks the story of the exodus from Egyptian slavery, is the festival of liberation. Shavuot, which marks the revelation at Sinai, is the festival of the giving of the Torah, of law, of covenant. The Omer period is the seven weeks between these holidays, and we ritually count each day.
As we link these two holidays ritually, we link them thematically. The joining of Passover and Shavuot reminds us that leaving Egypt is just the beginning of the journey. While it marks the liberation from Egyptian slavery, linking it to Shavuot reminds us that the ancient Israelites weren’t completely free until they received the Torah and formed the covenant with God. In other words, a people weren’t truly free until they had a new society, a new system of governance, a new organizing structure that would guarantee their freedoms and form the basis for the community moving forward.
Thus the Omer marks the in-between time of leaving one reality and entering another, which can be a time of uncertainty and precariousness. The idea of the plague, then, has resonance: a story of an epidemic is also a story of uncertainty and precariousness. When we “mourn,” we are not necessarily mourning loss, but acknowledging the lack of control and fragility that comes with life.
This idea is also reflected in the Omer’s agricultural roots. In the Torah, the beginning of the Omer was marked by bringing a sheaf (“omer”) of barley to the priest who would wave it as a prayer of hope for a good harvest. At the end of the Omer period, the time of the harvest, the first fruits would be brought to the priest as an offering of thanks. The Omer period can then be understood in this sense of fragility as well, since a good harvest is hoped for, but not guaranteed, and each day of plant growth comes with uncertainty. We can think about this as we prepare our own gardens for the season.
But on this journey of fragility, we pause on this day to celebrate.
And it makes sense that we should. For today, on the 33rd day of this 49 day journey of the Omer, we are closer to Sinai than we are to Egypt. We are closer to full liberation than we are to oppression. We are closer to harvest than we are to planting.
This in-between time can be one of uncertainty and precariousness. But it can also be a time of anticipation and growth in the expectation of what comes before us.
While I don’t always read my horoscope (I’m a Cancer), mine for this week from Free Will Astrology seemed particularly apt:
French painter Henri Matisse didn’t mind being unmoored, befuddled, or in-between. In fact, he regarded these states as being potentially valuable to his creative process. Here’s his testimony: “In art, truth and reality begin when one no longer understands what one is doing or what one knows.” I’m recommending that you try out his attitude, Cancerian. In my astrological opinion, the time has come for you to drum up the inspirations and revelations that become available when you don’t know where the hell you are and what the hell you’re doing.
In the in-between, we may not know where we are or what we are doing. But we are supported by the fact that amid such uncertainty is the promise of a better future. On this Lag B’Omer we celebrate our ability to leave behind what it is we need to leave behind, even if we are not sure about what is to come.