The thirty-third day of sefirat ha-omer is widely referred to as “Lag Ba-Omer” (lag being the acronym for 33 in Hebrew – ל”ג) and is usually accompanied with celebrations featuring massive bonfires and singing the praises of a certain Mishnaic sage, among other things. The day is also colored by intensive study of the Zohar and special trips, parties, and dancing – all leading to the [supposed] grave of Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai in Meron, Israel.
As with most practices invented in more recent history, the exact origins of this day are unknown. And although it was at one time meant to commemorate the end of the plague/execution that was said to have affected the students of Rebbi Akiva in b.Yevamot 62b, it has been co-opted by kabbalists and has now become the flagship day of latter-day mystics and their celebration of the Zohar – along with Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai as its patron saint.
More than simply being of dubious and unknown origin, the celebratory practices and the piles of “halakhic rulings” that have accrued in the name of Lag Ba-Omer are completely without basis in Hazal. In fact, Lag Ba-Omer is not mentioned in any rabbinic text prior to the 14th century. And when it is first designated as a distinctive day during the weeks of the omer, it is referred to in the context of a Geonic tradition that it on this particular day the students of Rebbi Akiva stopped dying/being killed (cf. Menahem Meiri, Beit HaBehirah to b.Yevamot 62b). And it is for this reason that there was [supposedly] a call for some sort of celebration, or at least a relaxing of the traditional mourning rites, such as taking a haircut or getting married.
It was not until the early part of the 17th century that the spuriously honored day of Lag Ba-Omer was co-opted by Lurian kabbalists, specifically by Luria’s well-known publicist (and likely producer of pseudepigraphic sayings and ideas in his name) Chaim Vital. In Vital’s work, “Etz Chaim” (cf. Sha’ar Sefirat Ha-Omer, chapter 7) he equates the hilula (pop. “yahrtzeit”) of Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai with the 33rd day of the omer. According to the Zohar literature, the anniversary of Rebbi Shimon’s death is actually a day of celebration and great joy (cf. Idra Zuta, Parashat Ha’azinu). This connection is centered around the false claim that Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai was actually authored the Zohar, having supposedly written it while hiding in a cave with his son from the Romans (cf. b. Shabbat 33b). According to the Arokh HaShulhan (493:7), Lag Ba-Omer is the day when Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai emerged from the cave.
Based on the reports of the personal practice of Luria, and those seeking to imitate him, masses of people go to the [supposed] grave of Rebbi Shimon in Meron to seek his blessing. Additionally, there has developed a practice of dancing around bonfires and singing praise songs to Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai (e.g. “Bar Yohai nimshakhta ashrekha…”), and sometimes silk scarves or other elements of clothing are burned while reciting kabbalistic incantations in an effort to dispel demons and evil spirits. The entire enterprise has turned into a dangerous, primitive, and idolatrous activity that certainly falls under the category of darkhei emori (the “ways of the Amorite”). A great many celebrants and would-be pilgrims to Meron end up turning to Rebbi Shimon in prayer, making all sorts of requests to their patron saint of the Zohar, committing one of the simplest forms of avodah zarah, namely, placing intermediaries between themselves and God (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 1:1-2:1).
I have written before on this site about the dubious origins of the Zohar literature and of it being a forgery. And now there has developed around it an equally dubious day – a baseless holiday for a baseless book.
The crafting of pseudo or para-halakhic regulations that have no basis in Hazal is actually discussed within the halakhah and is related as being the activity of the Tzaddukim (“Sadducees”), the heretics who denied the Oral Torah itself. The Rambam mentions this illegal tendency in Hilkhot Parah Adumah 1:14, where he says:
הצדוקין היו אומרים שאין מעשה הפרה כשר אלא במעורבי שמש לפיכך היו בית דין בבית שני מטמאין את הכוהן השורף את הפרה בשרץ וכיוצא בו וטובל ואחר כך עוסק בה כדי לבטל דברי אלו הזדים שמורים מהעולה על רוחם לא מן הקבלה
“The Tzaddukim used to assert that the preparation of the parah was not acceptable (kasher) except for those who, [after having immersed in a mikveh,] wait until after the sun completely sets (i.e. tzet ha-kokhavim). Therefore [in order to completely dismiss with their heretical contentions] the beit din (i.e. the Sanhedrin) during the Second Temple period would purposefully make the kohen who burned the parah impure through contact with a dead reptile, or something similarly impure, have him immerse [in a mikveh], and directly afterward complete his appointed task. All of this was to nullify the words of these [heretics] who willfully give legal instruction based on what whimsically arises in their mind and not based on the received halakhic tradition…”
Now, I am not saying that inventing religious practices and creating pseudo and/or para-halakhic days of celebration is necessarily equivalent to being a heretic, but judging from the above statement it must be close – or at the very least, viewed negatively by Hazal. And it is certainly considered dangerous enough to warrant the performance of details that directly defy such things in order to keep the halakhah clear in the minds of the people. This concern for halakhic clarity, I suspect, was the reason for the strong reaction from Rebbi Yosi in the following story related in b.Pesahim 100a.
“Once Rebbi Shimon ben Gamliel, Rebbi Yehudah, and Rebbi Yosi were reclining [together around a table for a meal] in Akko and [while they were eating] the sun set, signaling the beginning of Shabbat. Rebbi Shimon ben Gamliel said to Rebbi Yosi, ‘Would Be-Ribbi (the form of address for one eminent scholar addressing another) like to interrupt the meal now and follow the more stringent halakhic opinion of Yehudah our colleague?’ He said to him, ‘Each and every day you prefer my halakhic opinions over those of Rebbi Yehudah, and now [i.e. when he is here with us] you act as though you prefer his opinions in front of me? Will you also rape the queen with me in the house (quoting from Megillat Esther, 7:8)?’ He said back to him, ‘If so, then we shall not interrupt the meal now lest the students see us and determine the halakhah throughout the generations [incorrectly].’ The students who were there said, ‘They did not move from there until they established that the halakhah was in accordance with the opinion of Rebbi Yosi.”
There were two opinions about what was necessary if, while eating at a seudah that began after Minhah on a Friday afternoon, the sun completely set:  the opinion held by Rebbi Yehudah was that once the sun sets one must interrupt the seudah, re-wash, make kiddush, and begin a completely new meal in honor of Shabbat, and  the opinion held by Rebbi Yosi was that it was not necessary to interrupt one’s meal at sundown at all.
Between these two opinions, that held by Rebbi Yosi had already been determined as the halakhah. However, Rebbi Shimon ben Gamliel decided to ask Rebbi Yosi if he wanted to be hoshesh to the other opinion, since Rebbi Yehudah was there with them – apparently as some gesture of respect to his participation in the meal. But Rebbi Yosi, immediately sensing the potential damage that could be done due to the many students observing their teachers and listening intently to their conversation, reacted very harshly and made a clear and unquestionable declaration about which opinion was actually the halakhah. He even quotes Ahashvarosh who, returning from the garden to find Haman prostrate on Esther’s couch, says, “Will you also (i.e. after everything else) rape the queen with me here in the house?!” Rebbi Yosi intends, le-aniyut da’ati, to indicate that setting a mistaken halakhic example for the students, and by extension the Jewish public, is akin to raping the legal process (i.e. forcing a halakhic position which is not halakhah). Now, in this case the position of Rebbi Yehudah was not heresy and he was not a Tzadduki, but nevertheless they made sure that everyone in attendance understood clearly that his position was not the halakhah and need not be followed.
When it comes to kabbalistic practices that were instituted by various latter-day mystics and “prophets” (although they did not always lay claim openly to the title of “prophet,” they nevertheless claimed – or their followers claimed on their behalf – to have possessed “ruach ha-kodesh,” a form of prophecy) we need to be diligent to resist them, in my opinion, through non-participation. The incredible number of urban myths and legends regarding actual Jewish law and practice among the religious Jewish public is proof-positive that too many have stood by and consented to the inventions of regional scholars which have no basis in the received halakhic tradition, and an even greater number have helped to cement the general Jewish sentiment that such practices, once inaugurated, can never be annulled since they somehow magically became a part of the “mesorah.”
Once again, the Jewish people today lacks the legal authority of a lawmaker in respect to halakhah and retains solely the potential for an authority of expertise, comparable to that of a lawyer. All that any rabbi, teacher, scholar, or beit din can do is apply the law as it stands to various circumstances and make very limited, low-level, regional rulings within the bounds of codified halakhah. While there still remains legal diversity within the bounds of such halakhah as it currently stands, any real changes to its determinations cannot take place until proper universal (i.e. Sanhedrinal) authority is restored.
The policies of “live and let live” and “go along to get along” with regard to the constant religious extremism and social pressure of the Haredi-Hasidic world is how we got to where we are in the first place. Years ago, when a more-or-less docile (passive) orthodox mainstream was faced with a pushy elitist (expansive) Haredi-Hasidic fringe, the latter was either tolerated by the former or – as the case usually is – succeeded in intimidating them into obedience.
As a result, the twisted religious outlook of the once Haredi-Hasidic fringe has been allowed to infect and overtake the vast majority of “orthodox” Judaism. In the name of “unity” between Jews (which is ludicrous since the Haredi-Hasidic camp unites with no one), we have allowed error, idolatry, corruption, and a plethora of contrived Eurocentric practices to enter Judaism and masquerade as authentic tradition. If we do not stop giving them our tacit consent and passive allegiance, then they will continue to destroy peoples’ faith and to obscure the message of the Torah and the purpose of the Jewish people. If we want our sane, rational, reasonable, vibrant, compelling, and practically-useful Judaism back, then we need to take it back through a consistent call for authenticity and realism.
Lastly, we need to stop giving them our money.
- Stop giving charity to Haredi-Hasidic organizations, stop sending our young men to their yeshivot to be ruined by the roshei yeshivah and brainwashed into submission to their agenda.
- Stop sending our young women to their seminaries to be equally brainwashed into obsessive worry about their appearance and thinking that marital servitude is religiously noble.
- Stop purchasing their books and materials, and stop supporting the members of any kollel. We do not need their system to spread Torah and uphold its values.
Basically, we need to stop seeking their approval. We have our own non-Haredi, non-Hasidic yeshivot, printing presses, seminaries, and rabbinical programs that are beautiful and which produce wonderful young Jewish men and women committed to a life of Torah. Haredi-Hasidic groups are part of a system that subsists almost entirely on welfare and public charity – remove your support and you remove their ability to intimidate and perpetuate their ideology.
What I am NOT calling for is violence, disrespect, or rudeness. Not at all. Instead, the most effective way to assert your resistance is to simply stop participating and to become educated enough to argue for a reasonable mekori position. The goal is not to offend, but to convince; not to hurt, but to help. Anyone who makes it their business to openly and loudly say confrontational and controversial things – especially within the communal setting of a shul – is not a part of the solution, but is a [truly embarrassing] part of the problem. Such people are usually only egotistically looking for a fight.
Our true desire should be for positive and lasting change.
May HaShem give us the wisdom that grants us success.
Happy 22nd day of the omer,