Lag Ba'omer is commonly celebrated with a big bonfire. (Photo/Flickr-Yoninah CC BY-SA 3.0)
Lag Ba'omer is commonly celebrated with a big bonfire. (Photo/Flickr-Yoninah CC BY-SA 3.0)

Celebrating Lag Ba’Omer with the holy fools of Chelm


Leviticus 21:1–24:23

Ezekiel 44:15-31

The Rabbi of Chelm, city of holy fools, took a deep breath, meditated on his happy place and then smiled. He said, with an even voice, “No, Cinco de Mayo is a small holiday celebrated in Mexico. It is not a Chelm tradition, and it does not matter that it has become an American tradition.

“No,” he added, “It is not Mexican Independence Day. It commemorates the Battle of Puebla in 1862, in which the Mexican army defended itself against French invaders. The French were colonialists, and colonialism causes discord.

“What else causes discord? Disrespect between nations (colonialism), genders, races and people. This is the lesson from the season we are in right now. This Shabbat is the 35th day of the Omer, which we began counting after the first day of Passover. The Talmud relates that in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, a plague raged between the students of Rabbi Akiva, all 24,000 of them, ‘Because they did not act respectfully toward each other’ (Yevamot 62b). In Chelm, and in many Jewish communities, these weeks are observed as a period of mourning.”

Now the Rabbi of Chelm really smiled. “Yes, you remembered that this past week we celebrated Lag Ba’Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer. We had a happy day because, according to our tradition, on Lag Ba’Omer the plague ceased. Thus Lag Ba’Omer also carries the theme of Ahavat Yisrael, the imperative to love and respect one’s fellow.

“A Hasidic teaching from the Sochatchover rebbe, Rav Shmuel Bornstein, understands that the students of Rabbi Akiva had become a unified, mindless, obedient block of the faithful, again, all 24,000 of them. They lost their ability to think as individuals. Since each was the same as the next, each one was a clone and became redundant. This is why they hated each other. The fighting went on until the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer. Then the survivors reflected on their lives and each regained their individuality. And still, they found a way to respect each other’s individuality and yet remain a community.”

The bat mitzvah student thought about this and said, “Now I have a better appreciation of this week’s Torah portion, Emor. At first the text focuses on rules specifically for the Kohanim, not all the people. But later, after all the practices that seem to fall under the exclusive domain of the Kohanim, this happens in Leviticus 24:1-4:

‘God spoke to Moses, saying: Command the Israelite people to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain of the Pact [to burn] from evening to morning before the Lord regularly; it is a law for all time throughout the ages. He shall set up the lamps on the pure lampstand before the Lord [to burn] regularly.’

“These verses stress the involvement of all of Israel. There are mitzvot unique to Kohanim and mitzvot unique to the people. Each must respect the other’s uniqueness. And then, with the lamps, there are mitzvot for everyone.”

“Yes, that is a good reading. You know, the Hasidim point out that the period of the Omer is during the Hebrew months of Nissan, Iyar and Sivan. The zodiac sign of Nissan is the lamb. Sheep bleat as one and stick together. That’s why they are called sheep: They act like sheep.

“Iyar has the sign of the bull, a solitary animal. A very unsociable creature exhibiting profound bull-headedness: Probably why they are called bulls.

“Sivan, however, is represented by the twins: This indicates the most ideal path: two individuals coexisting in community.”

“Yes,” said the bat mitzvah, “you got that one right. Our world is full of bulls and sheep. Thank you for teaching me with respect.”

“Thank you for respecting me,” said the Rabbi of Chelm.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].