In a night-long vigil, thousands of Jews lit large bonfires across the country.
Lag BaOmer – representing the 33rd Day of the Counting of the Omer, is regarded a holiday that commemorates the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, one of Rabbi Akiva’s most famous disciples who lived in the second century of the common era. It is written that he officially became the first rabbi to reveal the deepest secrets of the Torah to his students, which is known today as the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism)
In Israel large celebrations are held on Mt Meron near Safed, where Bar Yochai is said to be buried. Every year thousands of orthodox Jews gather at Mt Meron to celebrate by building enormous bonfires where they sing and dance throughout the night.
Bonfires are lit not only to commemorate the death of Bar Yochai , but also to remember 24,000 yeshiva students of Rabbi Akiva who died fighting the Romans in the last of the Roman-Jewish war called the ‘Bar Kochba Revolt’ (132-135AD). The eventual defeat of the Jews by the Emperor Hadrian was considered the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora from the ‘Promised Land‘.
Customs on Lag BaOmer
In modern day Israel Lag B’Omer is a school holiday and bonfires are held the night before, usually with friends or school classes getting together to celebrate with parents.
All the years that my kids were in kindergarden and middle school I always accompanied them on their class bonfires, where all the parents met and brought food and games to pass the evening by the bonfire. That said, the only think that interested the kids was the fire itself.
It is customary also, if there is a musician around, that people play music and sings songs late into the night.
Of course this is also a busy time for Israel’s fire service as inevitably many fires breakout due to carelessness around fires.
During the 49 days of the Omer it is traditional to observe a period of semi-mourning where weddings are not held, music is not heard and hair is not cut. The Othodox choose this one day of Lag B’omer within the counting of the Omer to lift the ban and on this day they cut the hair of their 3 year old children for the first time.