The Origins of Lag Ba’Omer

THOUGHTS ON LAG BA’OMER
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Lag Ba’Omer 5779
This essay is dedicated in memory of Herman Wouk, founder of the Great Neck Synagogue.
The Origins of Lag Ba’Omer
In my recent essay “The Origins of Sefirah Mourning Practices,” I intentionally avoided the subject of Lag Ba’Omer because the earliest Geonic and Rishonic sources make no special mention of the thirty-third day of the Omer. There is no indication in the responsa and halakhic writings of Natronai Gaon, Hai Gaon, or Rabbi Isaac ibn Ghayyath that the ban on weddings during Sefirah is either completely suspended or temporarily relaxed at any point during the Omer; rather, the prohibitive custom appears to be in force continuously from Passover until Shavuot.
The earliest mention of Lag Ba’Omer is an annotation to Machzor Vitry likely written in the 1170s by Rabbi Isaac ben Durbal (Vitry 261). It notes that, in a given year, Purim and Lag Ba’Omer always fall on the same day of the week. The mnemonic device for this calendrical tidbit is “the name of the first one was Peleg (Genesis 10:25).” The name of the Biblical character Peleg פלג is used as an acronym for Purim & Lag Ba’Omer. While this rabbinic text makes clear that Lag Ba’Omer is a day of religious significance, it provides no clue about the character or origins of the holiday.
Rabbi Abraham ben Nathan Ha-Yarchi of Lunel, writing in 1204, noted that the custom in Northern France and Provence was to allow marriages from Lag Ba’Omer through the end of Sefirah (Sefer Ha-Manhig Hilkhot Eirusin v’Nisuin 538). He cited his colleague Rabbi Zerachiah Ha-Levi, who claimed to have seen an ancient Spanish manuscript in which the recorded timeline for the deaths of Rabbi Akiba’s students was מפסח ועד פרוס עצרת. Ha-Yarchi interpreted פרוס pros, which — assuming it is a Hebrew word — means half, to refer to half of the allotted thirty-day period for pre-holiday questions and answers (Megillah 29b). If Akiba’s students stopped dying fifteen days before Shavuot, then, posited Ha-Yarchi, that would account for the relaxation of funerary practices on Lag Ba-Omer.
Was Ha-Yarchi’s explication of the phantom Spanish recension correct?
Temple authorities would, thrice annually, take Shekel donations and deposit them in bins so that the coins were available to purchase sacrificial animals. The procedure was done before pilgrimage festivals, at times identified as בפרוס הפסח בפרוס עצרת בפרוס החג (Mishnah Shekalim 3:1). Rabbi Jose ben R’ Judah understood פרוס to mean “not fewer than fifteen days” prior to the holiday (Tosefta Shekalim 2:1). Another Mishnah identifies those very same three times a year as deadlines for setting aside the animal tithe (Mishnah Bekhorot 9:5). The Talmud cites Rabbi Jose ben R’ Judah’s view that פרוס means fifteen days, and then cites Rabbi Avin who justified it by noting that it corresponds to half the pre-holiday study period (Berkhorot 58a).
While the above sources support Ha-Yarchi’s reading of פרוס, it is clear from many other rabbinic texts that פרוס does not usually mean fifteen days before a holiday. If a person vows to abstain from something “until Passover,” the vows remains binding until the time the Paschal Lamb is slaughtered on the eve of Passover (Tosefta Nedarim 4:7). As for such a vow taken in the post-Temple era, Rabbi Jose held that the vow expires upon the conclusion of 14 Nisan, whereas Rabbi Meir held that the vow expires earlier in the day. The Yerushalmi notes that the Tannaitic dispute concerns פרוס הפסח, meaning that פרוס is the day immediately preceding the holiday (Yerushalmi Nedarim 41b). Other sources indicate that פרוס can mean, not before the holiday, but on the holiday itself. According to tradition, the three angels visited Abraham on Passover, a time identified in multiple Midrashic texts as פרוס הפסח (Genesis Rabbah 48:12). The interregnum between Solomon and Rehoboam lasted for 36 days, beginning on Rosh Chodesh Iyar and concluding on 6 Sivan, identified by the text as פרוס העצרת (Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer 5). Sennacherib besieged Jerusalem בפרוס הפסח (Seder Olam Rabbah 23), a time identified by other Aggadic sources as Passover night (Midrash Panim Acherim 6). The incident in which Judah ben Nehemiah disrespected Rabbi Tarfon is described by Rabbi Judah ben Ila’I as having taken place on פרוס הפסח (Menahot 68b). Yet a different recension has the event take place on Passover proper (Sifre Numbers 148), an indication that פרוס can refer to the holiday itself. Rabbi Joshua Benveniste (17th century Constantinople), in his Yerushalmi commentary, noted that פרוס is a Greek word meaning “before,” similar to the English prefix “pre-” (Sdeh Yehoshua Kiddushin 39a).
Likely Ha-Yarchi did not put much stock in his own explanation of the origins of Lag Ba’Omer. He was confronted with an existing practice and had to put forth a plausible explanation. Later scholars, while fully accepting Ha-Yarchi’s theory that Akiba’s disciples stopped dying at some point during Sefirah and that that moment ought to be commemorated by easing the mourning practices then being observed, identified a flaw in Ha-Yarchi’s calculations. Subtracting fifteen from the total of forty-nine Sefirah days would mean that Akiba’s disciples continued dying through the 34th day, and that only on the 35th day was there respite from these fatalities. By utilizing the Talmudic principle, often applied to the laws of mourning, that a partial day is considered a full day (Moed Katan 19b), it might be possible to reckon the 34th day of the Omer as the bittersweet day on which the plague came to an end. On the basis of these revised calculations, Rabbi Joshua ibn Shauib (Drashot al Ha-Torah Yom Rishon shel Pesach), and Rabbi Simon ben Zemach Duran (Shu”t Tashbetz 1:178) ruled that the mourning rites of Sefirah are relaxed on the morning of the 34th day. Rabbi Joseph Karo codified this ruling in his Code of Jewish Law (Shulhan Arukh Orach Chaim 493:2). This is an astounding example of halakhic development. Lag Ba’Omer, a late holiday of uncertain origins, was changed to Ladל”ד (34) Ba’Omer so that a speculative theory about the holiday’s origins might suffer from fewer mathematical shortcomings.
Other Rishonim accepted without reservation the historical claim that Akiba’s disciples stopped dying on Lag Ba’Omer. Meiri wrote that the Geonim had an historical tradition to that effect (Bet Ha-Behirah Yebamoth 62b). Likely, Meiri did not mean “Geonim” in the technical sense of the term; he was probably referring to the earlier Rishonim cited above. Tur also mentioned that he found written in an old text that Akiba’s students ceased dying on Lag Ba’Omer (Tur Orach Chaim 493). Because these Rishonim, and other later authorities, plainly recorded the matter as historical fact, and not as speculative theory, the notion that the plague afflicting Akiba’s students ended on Lag Ba’Omer gained wide acceptance over the centuries.
Sefer Minhag Tov, an Italian work written around 1273, authorized a one-day relaxation of Sefirah mourning practices on Lag Ba’Omer because of the miracle that happened on that day (Minhag Tov 61). To which miracle does the author refer? The matter is unclear. It would make sense for Lag Ba’Omer to have its origins in the commemoration of some favorable event, possibly other than the end of a plague – which, after all, is not itself a positive but instead the cessation of a negative.
Several modern scholars, beginning with Nachman Korchmal in his classic Guide for the Perplexed of the Time, have theorized that Akiba’s disciples were soldiers in the army of Bar Kokhba and that they died in battle (Moreh Nebukei Ha-Zeman, 109). On the premise that Sefirah mourning practices recall their deaths, the easing of such practices could recall some favorable temporary development in an otherwise doomed war. Rabbi Isaac Nissenbaum, an early 20th century religious-Zionist preacher, theorized that on Lag Ba’Omer the Jewish army captured Jerusalem from the Romans, struck new coinage marking their liberation of the Holy City, and promulgated an annual holiday celebration of their victory (Hagut Lev, 181). Others speculated that on Lag Ba’Omer Rabbi Simon Bar Yochai emerged triumphantly from his hiding pace in the caves of Judea (see Shabbat 33b).
Alternatively, some writers looked for origins of Lag Ba’Omer in the broader historical sweep of Jewish-Roman relations. The First Jewish-Roman War broke out as a rebellion against the Procurator of Judea, Gessius Florus, on 17 Iyar 66 CE (Josephus, Wars of the Jews 2:15:2). The attempt to rebuild the Holy Temple during the reign of Julian the Apostate occurred on 17 Iyar 363 CE (Letter Attributed to Cyril of Jerusalem). The weakness of these suggestions is that both episodes ended in utter failure. The Great War ended with the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. Julian’s bid to rebuild the Temple was scuttled after a devastating earthquake and fire. It would seem illogical to commemorate historical folly – with even the curtailment of funerary practices, let alone engaging in joyous celebration. Moreover, Lag Ba-Omer falls out on 18 Iyar, not 17 Iyar.
Julius Landsberger posited that Jews borrowed the aversion to springtime weddings from the Roman custom of Lemuralia. In his understanding of Roman paganism, the restricted period extended from April 30 (Walpurgis Night) through May 31. In the Jewish reworking of the practice, the 32-day restricted period was followed by a celebratory 33rd day auspicious for nuptials. Lou Silberman partially dismissed Landsberger’s theory, and especially its Lag B’Omer angle, noting that the pagan restricted period lasted six weeks through mid-June, not 32 days.
Julian Morgenstern theorized that Lag Ba’Omer was an ancient holiday dating back to the mid-first millennium BCE, when the Israelites utilized the pentecontad calendar. In his view, 18 Iyar was a one-day mid-harvest respite falling out on the twenty-fifth, or middle, day of the Omer as reckoned by the sectarians who interpreted the “morrow of the Sabbath (Leviticus 23:15)” to mean the Sunday after Passover (Menahot 65a). Gustav Dalman theorized that Lag Ba’Omer marked the first day of summer, occurring in mid to late-May in a year that featured the early rising of Pleiades (Seven Sisters). Possible support for this theory is found in a Tannaitic embellishment of the Flood narrative. Scripture reports that the upper and lower waters burst forth on the 17th day of the second month (Genesis 7:11). Rabbi Joshua said that 17 Iyar is typically the day for the setting of the constellation Kima and the diminishing of the earth’s waters, but that, because humanity engaged in sinfully aberrant behavior, the cosmos, too, would engage in aberrant behavior resulting in a catastrophic flood (Rosh Hashanah 11b).
Hatam Sofer was displeased with the evolution of Lag Ba’Omer into a wild Kabbalistic celebration of Rabbi Simon bar Yochai’s yahrzeit, featuring dangerous bonfires. He sought to establish a different historical basis for Lag Ba’Omer that could steer the holiday away from the theologically pernicious direction that it had taken. He posited that the manna first rained down on the Israelite wilderness encampment on 18 Iyar (Shu”t Hatam Sofer Yoreh Deah 233). The weakness of this explanation is that it seems to contradict the Talmud’s exposition of Exodus 16, according to which the manna first came down on 6 Iyar (Shabbat 87b).
There is compelling reason to suggest that Lag Ba’Omer does not commemorate any historical event predating the 10th century CE, which saw the beginnings of Sefirah mourning customs. In the first millennium CE, some Jews observed 18 Iyar as a fast day marking the yahrzeit of Joshua bin Nun. The great liturgical poet Elazar Kalir (early 7th century) made mention of Joshua’s yahrzeit in his piyyut Ohali Eichah Gilu Kadishim. Pinehas ben Jacob Ha-Kohen (8th century), too, mentioned Joshua’s yahrzeit in the Iyar section of his piyyut Kiddush Yerachim. However, not all versions of the list of minor fasts circulating in the Jewish world were alike. According to some recensions of what came be known as “Megillat Ta’anit Batra,” Joshua’s death occurred on 26 Nisan (Seder Rav Amram Gaon and Machzor Vitry 271). Shulhan Arukh codifies 26 Nisan as the date when especially pious people should fast (Orach Chaim 580:2). It is worth noting that Machzor Vitry, the earliest rabbinic text to reference Lag Ba’Omer, records Joshua’s yahrzeit as being on a day other than 18 Iyar. Had that not been the case, one might subjectively argue that no holiday of Lag Ba’Omer would ever have come to exist. Mitchell First, in his 2015 Hakirah article “The Mysterious Origin of Lag Ba-Omer,” advances another argument against the notion of viewing Lag Ba’Omer as an anniversary celebration. “The name of the holiday is not tied to a particular historical event. This supports the idea that we are looking for some type of mathematic or calendrical basis for a leniency, and not a historical event.”
I began this essay by noting that the original Sefirah custom was to refrain from solemnizing weddings for the entire seven-week period of the Omer. Lag Ba’Omer represents but one attempt to liberalize the custom – whether by offering a one-day reprieve or by ending the prohibitive custom altogether, seventeen days before Shavuot. A different leniency, predating the earliest known reference to Lag Ba’Omer, was popular in late 11th century Germany. This version of the custom permitted weddings between Passover and Rosh Chodesh Iyar and then prohibited weddings from Rosh Chodesh Iyar until Shavuot (Maaseh Ha-Geonim, 51; Sefer Ha-Pardes 264). Mitchell First argues, compellingly, that this proves that Lag Ba’Omer has its origins in France or Provence in the late 11th or early 12th centuries.
Joseph Derenbourg, writing in 1894, was the first to suggest that Lag Ba’Omer is simply an attempt to relax an onerous religious practice. He compared it to the Catholic Mi-Careme festivities on the middle day of Lent. It is difficult for people to handle too many consecutive days without joy. Noting that there are 34 days of mourning during Sefirah (a number reached by excluding Sabbaths, Passover days, and New Moons from the overall total of 49 days), he posited that a one-day reprieve was granted on the middle such day. First rejects Derenbourg’s theory because, unlike with Lent, the Sefirah restrictions expire on Lag Ba’Omer. First theorizes that 18 Iyar, Lag Ba’Omer, is the point at which a majority of the Sefirah days would have been observed as days of mourning (if one excludes Passover, when mourning is prohibited). Consistent with the Talmudic principle of רובו ככולו, the majority is akin to the entirety (Nazir 42a), and in deference to the popular desire for a truncated mourning period, Lag Ba’Omer is the day when one could throw off the yoke of mourning.
In our generation it is clear that even traditional Jews are annoyed by prolonged Sefirah restrictions. There was once a time when, in traditional Jewish communities, the only day during Sefirah when weddings were held was Lag Ba’Omer. Over the decades, especially in America, the custom has been observed less and less. Weddings are held in Nisan from after Passover until Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and then again after Lag Ba’Omer until Shavuot. The double leniencies at the communal level are inconsistent with each other, though each family arranging a wedding could claim to be following its own ancestral minhag. The result is, of course, a boon for the wedding caterers, who need shut their operations only for the seventeen-day interval between Rosh Chodesh Iyar and Lag Ba’Omer.
While a scholarly analysis might well conclude that Lag Ba’Omer is not at all an historic anniversary, most Jews celebrating this minor holiday prefer to embrace ahistorical memories of pitched battles between yeshiva students and Roman Legionnaires or of the mystical significance of Bar Yochai’s passing. In celebrating Lag Ba’Omer, what is of practical importance is staying safe.  Reckless archery and pyrotechnics are to be avoided. Good clean fun is to be encouraged.
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