Despite the objections of the Chasam Sofer and other gedolim, Lag Ba’omer has been celebrated for centuries, primarily at the instigation of the Arizal and his talmidim.
The sefer Shivchei Yerushalayim, printed in 5545/1785, quotes the testimony of a traveler from the year 5282/1522 (almost 500 years ago), who reports that a caravan of over 1,000 men, women and children traveled from Damascus and spent two days joyously celebrating in Meron.
Rav Baruch of Mezibuzh, the Baal Shem Tov’s grandson, considered Lag Ba’omer as the kabbolas Torah of kabbolah and danced every year holding a Zohar in his hand.
In a similar vein, the Bnei Yissochor explains that Lag Ba’omer is the day when kabbolas haTorah begins, and this is why the Tanach refers to Iyar as the month of Ziv. The Bnei Yissochor bases this on the kabbalistic significance of the letters in “Ziv,” vov and zayin. But one can simply explain that the name “Ziv” hints at the light of Torah that begins shining in this month.
In support of his idea, the Bnei Yissochor points out that two physical preparations for kabbolas haTorah started in Iyar. First, the mon began falling in that month, and Chazal say that Torah was given only to those who ate mon. Second, Miriam’s well appeared in Iyar. The propensity of its waters to augment Torah wisdom is known from a famous story about Rav Chaim Vital, who could not understand the Arizal’s teachings. The Arizal took him by boat to the middle of the Kinneret, where be’er Miriam had fallen, gave him some of its water to drink, and Rav Chaim’s heart and mind immediately opened to his teacher’s wisdom.
The Uniqueness Of Lag Ba’omer
But what is so special about the specific day of Lag Ba’omer? Quoting the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 2) in which Rabi Yochanan ben Zakkai asks his five talmidim to go out and find the “good” path to which a person should cleave, the Bnei Yissochor explains that his intent was that they should seek the answer to his question in the Torah.
Each talmid examined the place where “good” is mentioned in the Torah for the first time, because there is a rule that the Torah mentions concepts for the first time in their most all-inclusive form. Then each talmid strove to determine what was most significant about this first verse, “Hashem saw the light and it was good.”
Rabi Shimon, for example, learned that it teaches the importance of haroeh es hanolad, because with the Divine light of Creation, a person could see from one end of the world to the next.
Rabi Elazar ben Arach, however, counted the number of words until the word “tov” and, discovering that there were 32 (the gematria of “lev”), concluded that the most important thing is to have a good heart.
Rabi Elazar’s discovery hints at Lag Ba’omer because the gematria of “tov” (21) plus 32 equals 49, the number of days spent preparing for Shavuos. These 49 days correspond to the 32 paths that lead to the Torah’s wisdom that Hashem calls a “lekach tov.”
After counting the 32 paths of wisdom, explains the Bnei Yissochor, the light of Torah begins to shine on the 33rd day, Lag Ba’omer. All this is hinted, he concludes, in the verse in Tehillim, “Gal einai veabitah niflo’os beTorasechah, Open my eyes that I may see wonders in Your Torah,” because the word “gal” has the gematria of 32.
A further hint that Lag Ba’omer is connected with kabbolas haTorah is found in the Zohar (2:132) that states that Rabi Shimon had a spark of Moshe Rabbeinu’s soul.
The Arizal adds that this is reflected in many parallel incidents in their lives. Just as Moshe Rabbeinu was betrayed and had to flee, so, too, Rabi Shimon was betrayed and had to flee. And just as Moshe Rabbeinu received one of his greatest revelations in the “cave in the rock” (see Targum), so, too, Rabi Shimon reached his lofty madreigah while hiding in a cave with his son. The Arizal adds that both events happened in the same cave.
Fires And Light
Lag Ba’omer is a time of light and fires because, as mentioned previously, it commemorates the light of Torah that begins to shine in preparation of kabbolas haTorah. Rabi Shimon bar Yochai is also called the “holy light” because he revealed the Torah’s hidden secrets. Furthermore, it is on Lag Ba’omer that he commanded Rav Abba to write the last secrets of the Zohar (light).
Another reason for the light and fire of Lag Ba’omer is the statement of Idra (part of the Zohar) that Rabi Shimon delayed sunset on his dying day.
“Now I wish to reveal secrets before Hashem,” he said, “and this day will not leave to go to its place like other days because all this day is in my jurisdiction.”
In other words, the world’s natural light was subdued by the supernal light of “ki tov” that Rabi Shimon revealed on that day.
The Idra Zuta mentions another phenomenon involving light that occurred at Rabi Shimon’s passing:
Rav Abba said, “The great light (Rabi Shimon)… became silent. I was writing, but when I wanted to continue writing, I heard nothing. I could not lift my head because there was a great light and I could not bear to look at it… That whole day the light did not cease from the house, and no one approached him because of the light and fire surrounding him.
“That whole day, I fell on the earth and cried. After the fire left, I saw that the great luminary, the holy of holies, had left the world. He was wrapped in his garment, lying on his right side, and his face was filled with joy.
“People came from the village Zippori, beating their breasts and playing flutes of mourning [wanting to bury him in their place], but the inhabitants of Meron joined forces and chased them away and shouted at them, for they did not want him to be buried there [but in Meron].
“After [Rabi Shimon’s] bier left the house it rose in the air and a fire flamed before it. A voice was heard announcing, ‘Enter and come and gather for the hillulah of Rav Shimon.’”
In conclusion, Lag Ba’omer is the day we celebrate the first spark of the Torah’s light in preparation for kabbolas haTorah on Shavuos and rejoice in the light and fire of Rabi Shimon’s teachings of kabbolah.