Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Lag Ba'omer

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

There are a number of well-known and beloved customs relating to the celebrations of Lag Ba'omer.[1] Leading these is the celebration which is intended to mark the cessation of the plague which had killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva's students.[2] Additionally, the extensive festivities of Lag Ba'omer, complete with music and dancing, celebrates the Yartzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.[3] Among his many accomplishments, it is widely believed that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai authored the Zohar, the primary work on kabbala.[4] Bonfires are also widespread on Lag Ba'omer representing a number of things, including the "fire" of Torah.

There are those who have suggested that the Lag Ba'omer celebrations are intended to be reserved primarily for the Land of Israel.[5] Nevertheless, they are common in the Diaspora as well. There were many Chassidic masters who would hold special gatherings in honor of Lag Ba'omer, complete with singing and dancing, as well as words of Torah in honor of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. While one would think that a day of fasting and introspection would be in order for the Yartzeit of a Tzaddik, as is the case regarding the Yartzeit of Moshe Rabbeinu,[6] Lag Ba'omer is different because Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai himself requested that the day of his death be celebrated.[7]

Click here to read moreThose in Israel who are able to ascend to the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, located in Meron, are encouraged to do so. Once there, one should hold a meal in honor of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and celebrate his life.[8] Rabbi Ovadia Bartenura writes: "“On the eighteenth day of Iyar, the day of the Yartzeit of R’ Shimon Bar Yochai (the Rashbi), people from surrounding areas gather and light huge bonfires aside from lighting candles. Many barren women have been helped and sick have been healed when they made a promise and donation for this holy site.”[9] Those who are unable to travel to Meron should at least study the teachings of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai throughout the day of Lag Ba'omer.[10]

Similarly, it is considered especially auspicious to visit the tombs of any Tzaddikim on Lag Ba'omer.[11] Lag Ba'omer is also the Yartzeit of the Rema and many visit his grave in Cracow on that day.[12] The three days prior as well as the three days following a Yartzeit are considered to be a component of the Yartzeit. As such, one who is unable to reach a grave on the actual Yartzeit of the deceased should at least attempt to do so during these days.[13]

It is interesting to note that there have been authorities in the past who have attempted to have the Lag Ba'omer celebrations eliminated entirely.[14] This is primarily due to what was once a widespread practice of burning items of value in the Lag Ba'omer bonfires. Such a practice is actually a Biblical prohibition known as "Bal Tashchit", needlessly destroying items of value.[15] Other authorities were disturbed at the idea of inventing "new" holidays and observances.[16]

Although some authorities have opposed Lag Ba'omer in the past, the observance of Lag Ba'omer has it's supporters as well.[17] Many consider creating a holiday out of Lag Ba'omer appropriate because Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was miraculously saved from the Roman government, who pronounced death upon him for his spreading of Torah.[18] Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (and his son) had fled to a cave in the city of Peki’in[19] and hid there for thirteen years, surviving on the fruit of a carob tree and a spring that miraculously appeared.[20] Hence, Lag Ba'omer can be seen as a celebration of escaping death.

A rather intriguing though highly questionable custom of Lag Ba'omer is that of the "Chai Rottel" segula. Chai Rottel is a liquid measurement of about 54 liters, referring to the amount of beverages, including wine and spirits, one should provide for the enjoyment of visitors to Meron on Lag Ba'omer. It is believed that one who donates the Chai Rottel will be blessed with all forms of miraculous salvations.[21]

There is also a custom on Lag Ba'omer for children to pay with bows and arrows. This is alluded to in the verse: "And the sons of Ulam were mighty men of valor, shooters of bows (archers), and had many sons, and sons' sons."[22] One of the explanations for this custom is to recall that during the lifetime of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai a rainbow was not seen in the sky. This is because the rainbow, which represents God's protection over the world, was superfluous, as the merit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai served this purpose instead.[23]

Another reason offered for the bows and arrows custom is to recall the Roman decree forbidding any Torah study. As such, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his students would head to the forests equipped with their bows and arrows in order to study Torah there. When they would be found and questioned by the Roman policeman they would claim that they were hunting and not studying. Similarly, the military nature of bows and arrows are intended to recall the revolt against the Romans in 135 C.E. The revolt was led by Rabbi Akiva who was the primary teacher of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.


[1] Kaf Hachaim 493:27
[2] Aruch Hashulchan 493:5
[3] Minchat Elazar 4:64, cited in Nitei Gavriel Minhagei Lag Ba'omer. There are eminent authorites such as the Chida, the Ben Ish Chai and Rabbi Chaim Vital who are of the opinion that Lag Ba'omer is not the Yartzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. They argue that this claim is based on scribal errors. See http://www.shofar.net/site/ARDetile.asp?id=8159 for more
[4] The authorship of the Zohar is the subject of much controversy. Some scholars attribute the Zohar entirely to Rashbi; others argue that it was Rabbi Moses de Leon who wrote it. Yet others suggest that it was started by Rashbi or contains thoughts and teachings of Rashbi, but was compiled and completed by de Leon.
[5] Minchat Elazar 4:64
[6] Sho’el U’meishiv #39
[7] Kaf Hachaim 493:27
[8] Kaf Hachaim 493:26
[9] Hilula D'rashbi p.89
[10] It is especially good to learn the story of Rashbi starting on Shabbat daf 33b (That is daf "lag"), or other Gemaras with Rashbi.
[11] Nitei Gavriel Minhagei Lag Ba'omer
[12] Nitei Gavriel Minhagei Lag Ba'omer
[13] Nitei Gavriel Minhagei Lag Ba'omer
[14] For an extensive discussion on this issue, see S'dei Chemed;Eretz Yisrael
[15] Bava Kama 91b, Shabbat 140b
[16] Chatam Sofer Y.D. 233
[17] See footnote #14
[18] Compare the nineteenth of Kislev being celebrated in memory of Rabbi Shneur Zalman.
[19] There is a minority opinion that the cave in which Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai hid when fleeing the Romans was located in Lod. Zohar Chadash;Ki Tavo
[20] Shabbat 33.
[21] This idea apparently originates with Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam of Bobov who writes in 1912: " I heard from the holy sages of Eretz Yisrael that they have a kabbalah that barren women, G-d-forbid, should donate Chai Rotel on the yahrzeit of R’ Shimon bar Yochai.". See also the sefer "Tel Yerushalayim" where Rabbi Yehudah Leib Hornstein writes about two childless couples who were finally blessed with a child after they supplied "chai rotel" in Miron on Lag Ba'omer.
[22] Chronicles I 8:40
[23] Bnei Yissachar Iyar IV

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