What is Lag LaOmer all about? (Sephardim call it Lag LaOmer and Ashkenazim call it Lag BaOmer.)
As a child growing up in Manchester my Elementary School always took us out on hikes on Lag LaOmer. In other times in my life we would have bonfires and barbecues. But I didn't realize the significance behind these activities till I was older.
Lag LaOmer is most commonly connected to three personalities Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and Bar Kochba. Rabbi Akiva was Rabbi Shimon's teacher for many years and their are several stories in the Talmud and Kabbalah about their relationship. These personalities lived 60 years afters the destruction of the Second Temple.
The Talmud (Yevamot 62b) tells us that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students and all of them died in one period of time because they did not conduct themselves with respect towards one another. They all died between Pesach and Shavuot. The main rabbinic tradition has been to use this time period as a time to work on our relationships. According to the Rabbis of the Geonic Period the day when Rabbi Akiva's students stopped dying was on the 33rd day of the omer what we call Lag LaOmer.
Rabbi Akiva went on to teach 5 more students one of whom was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The two great scholars would teach and learn Torah in secret against the ruling of harsh Roman decrees. Rabbi Akiva was the leading rabbi against the Romans and started a rebellion against the Romans which was led militarily by Bar Kochba.
At first there was great success and the Jews established their own sovereignty over the land of Israel and even minted their own coins. But for a number of reasons the revolt failled and the Romans came to put down the rebellion.
According to some commentators and historians Rabbi Akiva's 24000 students actually died fighting in this revolt against the Romans. It actually makes a lot of sense to say this because after the Romans put the revolt down around 135 CE, there was no major Jewish presence in the land of Israel until the late 19th Century. So the sad part of the Omer is really a mourning of the end of Jewish sovereignty in Israel.
Rabbi Akiva was also tortured by the Romans and killed. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai as the leading disciple of Rabbi Akiva went into hiding with his son. The two of them spent 13 years in a cave learning Torah. It was during this time that Rabbi Shimon learned the mystical secrets to the Torah - the Kabbalah.
On the day of his death Rabbi Shimon revealed the Kabbalah to his students. That day was Lag LaOmer. The Bonfires we light symbolize the light of the Kabbalah being revealed to the world. The Bows and Arrows remind us of the great revolt led by Bar Kochba. Although the rebellion failed and we mourn that failure with the first half of the Omer, we still celebrate the positive aspects on Lag LaOmer and the revealing of the Kabbalah.
Happy Lag LaOmer!