We all saw the sad news from Israel last Thursday (April 29) when 45 people were crushed to death and 150 others injured during a Lag B’Omer festival in Meron, a town in upper Galilee, about 18 miles northwest of Capernaum.

An estimated 100,000 people had gathered for the annual festival, though authorities had approved only 10,000 – but in pre-COVID days more than 250,000 were known to flood the area with the black-and-white garb of the ultra-Orthodox, who are often allowed to operate outside of Israeli law.

The festival involves huge bonfires, raucous music, and all-night dancing in segregated areas for male and female participants.

Photo: Yoninah / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons / https://tinyurl.com/x9n8wpvk

The deadly stampede occurred after midnight as thousands of participants who had watched the ceremonial lighting of a bonfire from a grandstand were leaving. While trying to navigate a narrow and convoluted path bordered by high, smooth walls and one 90-degree angle, some people apparently fell, but the thousands behind kept pushing.

The walkway, part slope and part stairs, was littered with thousands of empty plastic water bottles, contributing to the shaky footing.

But what is Lag B’Omer, and why is it such a big deal? Israel’s huge Hassidic community is a mystery to most people and watching “Shtisel” and “Unorthodox” on Netflix only reveals so much.

Here are some basics: Lag B’Omer is a festival marking the 33rd day of Sephirat HaOmer, “the counting of Omer.” It’s a period that begins the day after Passover when the Israelites were to bring an “omer” of barley (3 to 4 pounds) to the temple as an offering. A sheaf of grain was presented before the altar as a “wave offering.”

According to Leviticus 23:15-16, the Hebrews were to count 49 days from then to the festival of Shavuot, otherwise known as Pentecost, when another armful of grain would be offered to begin the Feast of Weeks.

Religiously observant Jews mark Sephirat HaOmer as a time of mourning and contemplation.

They don’t shave, cut their hair, get married, or hold public events (other than Sabbath services) during the period except on Lag B’Omer, which offers a respite for haircuts, bonfires, and lots of partying amid the mourning.

Some sects cease mourning altogether on the 33rd day while others resume the contemplative mood until Shavuot, which marks the end of the spring harvest and the day that Moses traditionally received the Law at Mount Sinai.

And the name? “Lag” is “33” in Hebrew, where numbers consist of letters in combination. The first 10 letters stand for 1 to 10; the next letters in line are 20, 30, and so forth. Lamedh (an “l” sound) is 30, and gimel (a “g” sound) is three, so lg = 33. Throw in a vowel to make it easy to pronounce, and you get lag.

The Hebrew preposition b– means “in,” so Lag B’Omer means “the 33rd in Omer” (some sects prefer Lag L’Omer, or “33rd of Omer,” and Sephardic Jews start a day later).

But why is Lag B’Omer such a big deal? It’s not mentioned in the Bible or even in any Jewish writings until the 13th century.

Three traditions are associated with the observance. One begins with the famed Rabbi Akiva (50-135 CE), who had many students. Some of his followers were said to have misbehaved so badly that God sent a plague that wiped out 24,000 of them during the Counting of the Omer. On the 33rd day, the plague came to an end, leaving only five students.

Thus, the 33rd day is considered a day of celebration marking the end of the plague – and the period of mourning remembers the students who died and challenges observers to examine their own behavior.

Akiva’s most famous student was Shimon Bar-Yochai, who became the leading rabbi of his time and was the reported author of the Zophar, a collection of mystical teachings from which the kabbalistic Judaism is derived. It’s likely that the Zophar was written later by someone else who put Shimon Bar-Yochai’s name on it to add authority, much as other Jewish and Christian pseudepigrapha of the period were credited to various apostles or famous biblical characters.

A tradition says that Shimon Bar-Yochai died on Lag B’Omer, and at his command the sun remained in the sky until he could finish reciting his mystical teachings; the bonfires recall the extended daylight of his final day.

Among the ultra-Orthodox, the heart of Lag B’Omer celebrations centers around Shimon Bar-Yochai, whose tomb is located in – you guessed it – the town of Meron. The Zohar said that his death should be observed as a hillula: with celebration rather than mourning. An ultra-Orthodox hillula is a real hullabaloo.

Most Israeli Jews are not religious and certainly not kabbalistic, but they still like to party, albeit in smaller gatherings. To promote national identity, the Zionist movement of the late 19th and early 20th century reinterpreted Lag B’Omer, associating it with the Bar-Kokhba rebellion of 132-136 CE.

The pugnacious Bar-Kokhba won an initial victory leading to a three-year period of Jewish rule before the Romans crushed the rebellion. Secular Israelis observe Lag B’Omer with their own bonfires and parties but do it to mark Bar-Kokhba’s early victory and to celebrate the fighting spirit that promotes Israeli independence.

And now you know: If you decide to join either celebration next year, just be careful.

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