Lag BOmer: a time to count blessings and celebrate

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

It's not a ride at Knott's Berry Farm. And it's not an obscure forestry tool. But if you ask most Jews, they don't know exactly what Lag B'Omer really is.

The Jewish cousin of lesser-known secular holidays such as Flag Day, Lag B'Omer is a holiday few American Jews will celebrate or understand when it comes around sundown Monday, May 6.

"It is one of those slightly enigmatic holidays that people don't know much about, that's for sure," admits Rabbi Yisrael Rice at Chabad of Marin in San Rafael. Still, the Orthodox rabbi and other local religious leaders say Lag B'Omer is a holiday worth getting to know.

Just consult your New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia — somewhere between "Ladino" and "Lamp, Sabbath" — and you'll find a brief description of the holiday. According to legend, an outbreak of plague among the students of Rabbi Akiva in the rabbinic era ended on the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, or in its Hebrew letter equivalent, Lag B'Omer.

For that one day in the middle of the 49-day period when Jews mark the passage between Passover and Shavuot, none of Akiva's students perished from disease. The day also commemorates Rabbi Simeon Ben Yohai, who some say died on that day while transmitting his mystical message to his followers. Hence, the day is known as the "scholar's feast."

According to Rice, it is a good day to remember Ben Yohai's kabbalistic teachings.

"His life was dedicated to giving insight into the inner light of Judaism." The day, he says, is perfect for "people to connect with their own inner soul, to try and develop a connection to God."

It is also "an absolute day of celebration. The mourning that precedes and succeeds it has no impact on this day," says Rice, referring to the rituals of grief that are observed during the rest of the period of Omer.

While those seven weeks are considered a time for somber self-reflection, Lag B'Omer marks a one-day suspension of the "half-mourning" rituals. Prohibitions against marriage and haircuts are lifted, which is why it is traditional for 3-year-old Chassidic and Sephardic boys to receive their first haircut on that day.

The budding scholars at Brandeis Hillel Day School in both San Francisco and San Rafael celebrate the so-called scholar's feast as other Jewish students around the world do, by taking a break from the books. Students from both schools will celebrate with Yom Sport, a family day of "singing, dancing, group prayer and non-competitive sports," according to school executive director, Rabbi Henry Shreibman.

"It's a day of release," says Shreibman. The educator also points to the agricultural significance of the holiday, rooted in a harvest festival. In biblical times, a measure of grain, known as an omer, was brought to the Temple on the day after Passover as an offering. That season also marked a time of planting. By Shavuot, the harvest was expected to be well under way. Lag B'Omer is a preview of the successful partnership between "God, the earth and the farmer."

In the Jewish Renewal movement, Lag B'Omer is especially significant, says Rabbi A.J. Silver of Temple Or Tiqvah for American Jewish Renewal in Santa Cruz.

"It's a very sacred time, a time to focus on a spiritual journey. As Renewal Jews, we are interested in celebrating what's happy and joyful. This is a break in a period of mourning, so even though we struggle and wrestle with God as individuals and as a people, we can rise with renewed hope.

"It's a sparkling tradition to carry on," Silver adds.

Jewish groups around the Bay Area will be sponsoring events from Lag B'Omer picnics to beach bonfires. (In Israel, people celebrate by baking potatoes at bonfires.) For those who can't attend, Silver suggests simply stepping out into nature, "where things are blooming.

"Do some meditations, focus on the gifts of the harvest, or creation, or things that are positive in your life," says Silver. "Reflect on the fact that we have survived difficult things in our personal lives."