Understanding Lag B’Omer

 

by Yair Danielsohn What lies behind this enigmatic festival? And why the bonfires?

In Israel, months before the advent of the festival of Lag B’Omer — the 33rd day of the Omer, the 49 days that bridge between Passover and Shavuot — one can see youngsters dragging all types of combustibles, from fallen trees to broken chairs to old mattresses. Their destination? The nearest empty lot, where they pile their treasured possessions to impossible heights and wait with eager anticipation until the night of Lag B’Omer, arguably their favorite time of year, when they turn the piles into enormous conflagrations. Ask anyone what the bonfires are for, and you’ll be told they are in celebration of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a great sage who lived and taught approximately half a century after the destruction of the second Temple.

What lies behind this rather enigmatic festival of Lag B’Omer? What’s so special about the 33rd day of the Omer? And who was Rabbi Shimon, to whose name Lag B’Omer is inextricably tied, and why do we celebrate him? And why the bonfires?

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