The days of the Omer are a mystery, but Lag Ba’omer is indeed a mystery wrapped in an enigma.
The Ramban famously (Vayikra 23:36) teaches us that the entire period from Pesach to Shavuos was meant to be one long Chol Hamoed. This would have been in effect the longest stretch of utter joy on our calendar. Tragically, instead, these days became embodied with sadness and loss. One day shines brightly in the middle, bathing us in ethereal light and consolation. That is the transcendental and mystical thirty-third day of the Omer. What happened and how does it affect us today? That is our task and opportunity to explore on this unique holy day.
First of all, we must take note of the fact that many poskim and gedolei Yisroel were at best ambivalent about Lag Ba’omer and others even antagonistic to making it into a Yom Tov. The Pri Chodosh (Orach Chaim 496, “Kuntres Minhagei Issur 14) pointedly asks: “What is this simcha all about? If it is because the talmidim of Rabi Akiva ceased dying, ma bekach (what of it)? They had all died already, so what is there to celebrate?” The Pri Chodosh suggests, somewhat tentatively, that “perhaps the joy derives from the fact that Rabi Akiva was able to begin again (Yevamos 62b) with the new talmidim who did not perish like the others.”
The Chasam Sofer (Yoreh Deah 233) declared of those who celebrate this day that “although their intentions are surely for the sake of heaven, I will not join them…We cannot establish a holiday where no miracle occurred, nor is it mentioned in the Gemara or [early] poskim.”
Regarding the other aspect of Lag Ba’omer as the yahrtzeit of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai, Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson (Shoel Umeishiv, fifth volume, No. 39) declares that “on the contrary, one should fast upon the death of a tzaddik; therefore, how can we make the yahrtzeit of the great Tanna Rashbi into a Yom Tov?”
Rav Aryeh Leibush Balchover (Sheim Aryeh, Orach Chaim 14) also struggles with the idea: “Why would people celebrate at the grave of the holy Tanna…and what is all this noise of people coming and making great bonfires?” After much analysis, he concludes that “the joy displayed on this day may be because the Gemara (Shabbos 33b) teaches that the Roman empire had initially issued a decree that Rav Shimon should be executed by the sword. A great miracle occurred and the decree was annulled. For this reason, when Rav Shimon passed away, the rabbis instituted a Yom Tov to commemorate that he died a natural death instead of at the sword, as had been decreed.”
Rav Yeruchem Olshin (Yoreiach Lemoadim, “Omer and Shavuos,” Maamar 17) also seeks the reason for this joyous day. He notes the statement of the poskim (Tur and Shulchan Aruch 428) that Lag Ba’omer always falls on the same day as Purim (this year, Friday). Rav Olshin suggests that the inner meaning of this connection is that just as Purim was the renewal of Kabbolas HaTorah (Shabbos 88a, with Rashi), so was Lag Ba’omer a fresh start for the mesoras haTorah. Since Rabi Akiva embodies the totality of Torah Shebaal Peh (Sanhedrin 86a), so did the day that the mesorah (transmission) was saved and restarted become a profound Yom Tov for Klal Yisroel.
How do we now answer the objections of the poskim who claim that we dare not celebrate the petirah of a tzaddik? One answer (see Sefer Bein Pesach L’Shavuos, page 329, note 48) is to contrast the day when Moshe Rabbeinu was niftar with that of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai. The day that Moshe Rabbeinu passed away (7 Adar 2488), he was extremely saddened and cried bitterly because he had deeply wished to enter Eretz Yisroel and fulfill the mitzvos of the land (Taamei Haminhagim, page 251). On the other hand, Rav Shimon had looked forward to this day all his life, because he was now permitted to reveal his most profound Torah, known as the Idra Zuta. Rav Shimon’s joy at that moment is recounted in the Zohar itself (volume 3, page 231b): “On the day of Rav Shimon’s petirah, his son, Rav Eliezer, and his colleagues were assembled. Rav Shimon began, ‘This is the moment of ratzon (divine acceptance) and I wish to arrive in the World to Come without embarrassment. The following are the holy words that I have never revealed, and I wish to do so now before the Shechinah so that it should not be said that I left this world bechisaron (in an incomplete state).”
The Zohar Hakadosh (3:296) describes the riveting scene of Rav Shimon’s petirah: “A holy fire licked the walls of the house. Rav Shimon commanded Rav Abba to record his words. Suddenly, everyone spied Rav Shimon wrapped in his tallis, his face shining with joy. After he finished dictating the Idra and the majority of the hidden Torah, his soul ascended on high. As he was reciting the posuk (Tehillim 133:3), ending in the word chaim, he passed away to the world which is totally good.”
We may now conclude that Lag Ba’omer carries a double message of positivity. First of all, we must never give up. Rabi Akiva lived through one of the most traumatic and devastating tragedies imaginable. Some of the largest yeshivos today host six or seven thousand talmidim. Rabi Akiva’s yeshiva – the crown jewel of the Torah world – comprised 24,000 students, each of whom merited being a Tanna and part of the eternal continuum of Torah. All of them perished in a plague during a time that had previously been celebrated as the happiest time of the year. Suddenly, all was gone. In the words of the Gemara (Yevamos 62b), the world was desolate. Rabi Akiva could have given up in despair and anguish. Instead, he rebuilt and replanted with five students in the south of Eretz Yisroel and reestablished the now-unbroken chain of the Torah. This is something to celebrate for us all, especially those who have shared such moments of grief and despair.
This message comes also from the famous words of Rabi Akiva which have also been sung for centuries: “Ashreichem Yisroel… Fortunate are you, O Yisroel… It is your Father in heaven Who purifies you” (Yoma 85b). No matter how many times a person becomes defiled, Hashem is willing to purify us, as long as we make the effort. Shlomo Hamelech in Koheles teaches that the tzaddik may fall seven times, but he arises. My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, always stressed that he does not arise despite falling. He is stronger because he fell and got up again. Surely, that is the lesson from Rabi Akiva as well. No one ever lost as much in as short a time. Yet, he went down south to his new talmidim – he did not wait for them to come to him – and began again. Successfully! That is the incredible joy of Lag Ba’omer.
Furthermore, Rav Shimon’s death amidst the knowledge of accomplishment and completion is a goal for everyone. It means working towards a totality of life as culminating in fulfillment. The Bnei Yissoschor (Maamorei Chodesh Iyar 3:7) suggests that the first mention of Lag Ba’omer is hinted at in the words of Dovid Hamelech (Tehillim 119:18): “Gal einai… Open my eyes and may I see the wonders of Your Torah.” The word gal, comprising the letters gimmel and lamid, spell the “Lag” of Lag Ba’omer. Our joy in life from beginning to end can mirror Rav Shimon’s – albeit on a much lower level – by remaining focused on accomplishing our own personal goals and attainable aspirations in Torah and spiritual growth.
Rav Meilich Biderman (Be’er Hachaim, Lag Ba’omer, page 130) notes that when Rav Avrohom Elimelech of Karlin visited Meron, the burial place of Rav Shimon, he refused to accept kvittlach (requests for a blessing), explaining ,“Here, everyone is a rebbe.” Perhaps part of the meaning is that on Lag Ba’omer, we can each achieve our own potential by emulating Rav Shimon’s single-minded devotion to fulfilling his life’s goal and purpose.
We should mention at this point the story told by the Gerrer Rebbe, the Lev Simcha. He was davening at Rashbi’s kever when a man standing near him whispered something. He had already been married for many years without children and knocked lightly on the stone, quoting the Lag Ba’omer piyut, “Naaseh adam – Let us make man.” He told Rav Shimon, “That was said about you.” The following year, he and his wife were blessed with a child.
Perhaps our goal should be to try to fulfill, even modestly, the role of being the purpose for which human beings were created. Indeed, Chazal teach that each one of us should take the responsibility of feeling that bishvili nivra ha’olam, the world was created for us. Rav Shimon Bar Yochai took that obligation extremely seriously, and his life and even death became a source of sublime joy and inspiration. Even though we have just barely touched the mystery of Lag Ba’omer, may we incorporate some of the life lessons of both Rabi Akiva and Rav Shimon Yochai into our own lives as well.