Haircuts, outings enliven little-known Lag BOmer

We gave Aliza her haircut on Lag B'Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, about a month after the last Passover seder. According to tradition, except on Lag B'Omer, people do not have their hair cut during this 49-day period. This is a sign of mourning for the death by plague of thousands of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva, the great scholar who lived from about 40 to 123 CE.

In addition, because of this tragedy, no weddings take place during this period, except on the new moon and Lag B'Omer, which this year begins at sundown Wednesday. The day of Lag B'Omer itself is when the plague is said to have ceased.

In Israel, the holiday is commemorated by games with bows and arrows, in remembrance of a temporary military victory over the Romans by Bar Kokhva, a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva. Israeli families also go on outings and have picnics on this day.

There are two rabbinic stories about Lag B'Omer that speak to two different approaches to handling conflicts. In the first, Rabbi Akiva anointed Bar Kokhva as the messiah in the hope that this action would inspire the people to rise up and fight the occupying army of Rome. Although there was an initial resurgence in Jewish victories, it was short-lived. The story ends in tragedy: exile, martyrdom, mass executions and more devastation of the land.

The second story is about Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai and his son, who hid in a cave for 13 years and studied Torah every day, waiting out the Romans. A carob tree at the mouth of the cave miraculously fed the scholars. When the Romans finally left Judaea, Simeon and his son emerged as heroes and teachers who brought light and teaching to the Jews.

The rabbis were clearly uncomfortable with Akiva's call for armed resistance and tried to temper it. This problem brings up the question of how we — and our children — should approach conflict. Should we fight? Should we wait it out, or should we try to find a peaceful solution? Under what circumstances is each of the two approaches called for, if any?

We can learn much from Rabbi Akiva on Lag B'Omer. He didn't even know the Hebrew alphabet until he turned 40 years old. How many of us feel simply overwhelmed by Hebrew and liturgy? At 40 years old, can we really begin learning a new language? Can we really make the time to start reading Jewish books? Akiva's example teaches that learning is possible — and essential — at any stage of life.

Here are some activities to help bring Lag B'Omer to life:

*Picnics. Spring is a wonderful time for outdoor activities, and planning an annual Jewish family picnic is a good way to introduce the holiday. Plan an ethnic food menu, maybe something Middle Eastern and perhaps including carob. Say the appropriate blessings over the food. And in the spirit of being kind to others — Akiva taught the Golden Rule — have each person give words of blessing or praise to each member of the family.

*Bonfires. In Israel, it is customary to sit around the fire, roasting onions and potatoes, singing songs and dancing. In the United States, Lag B'Omer presents an occasion to go on a camping trip with the family, but keep the younger kids away from the fire.

*Haircuts. Explain to your children that today is a special day when Jews around the world get their hair cut. Have you been thinking about getting a perm or a new style? Today is a wonderful day to do it and simultaneously connect your family life to Jews around the world and the Jewish calendar.

By observing the little-known Lag B'Omer, we may also be able to resuscitate the even more important Shavuot, which ends the counting of the Omer the evening of Saturday, May 30th.