Lag Ba-Omer – A Mekori Perspective

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 TorahHilkhot 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:

TEXT

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

TRANSLATION

“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.

TEXT

Pesahim 100a - selection

TRANSLATION

“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: [1] 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 [2] 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,

Kol tuv,

YB

4 thoughts on “Lag Ba-Omer – A Mekori Perspective

  1. Thanks again for your clear and cogent arguments.

    I’d like to educate myself further regarding the debate surrounding the authenticity of the Zohar. Would you be able to recommend some books, passages from books, articles, etc. regarding the subject?

    Thanks.

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    • לק”י

      Shalom, Alan.

      You are, of course, very welcome. I do my best and appreciate the compliment.

      As for your request, I would suggest the following resources:

      [1] “The Wars of the Lord” by Abraham Maimonides (you can find it for purchase here) – The book itself is great, but the really valuable information in my opinion is found in the introduction and appendices. It doesn’t discuss the Zohar per se, but it does cover the Maimonidean controversies which preceded it.

      [2] “Milhamoth HaShem” by Rav Yihyah Qafih z”l – (you can find it for free in PDF form here) – If you can access the Hebrew, this is the absolute best resource for understanding the nature and teachings of the Zohar, and why it cannot be an authentic work. If you cannot access the Hebrew, then large selections with loads of valuable information may be found in the following resource.

      [3] “Tohar HaYichud” by Mesora.org – (you can find it for free in PDF form here) – The author of this English resource did a fantastic job laying out the arguments against the latter-day “kabbalah”, including the Zohar and its dubious origins. Highly recommended.

      [4] “Mitpahath Sefariym” by Rabbi Ya’aqov Emden – I have a copy of this book in print that I had to purchase secretly from a bookseller in Jerusalem. I kid you not, I had to wait until everyone left the store and the owner moved some books on a shelf behind him, opened a secret door leading to a hidden compartment in the wall (!!), and pulled out a copy of this book that he had gotten from a stock of privately re-printed copies. Again, if you can access the Hebrew, you can find a scan of it here.

      [5] English books by the late Gershom Scholem on the subject of the Zohar and Lurianic Kabbalah are a great way for a thinking person to see the obvious discrepancies between monotheism and the Gnostic system of religion later promoted by latter-day mystics and false prophets. Scholem was a scholar and does not use the sanitized and religiously-correct language used by apologetic scholars when discussing kabbalistic teachings. He states clearly that “kabbalah” changed with the Zohar and that the Gnostic system of multiple gods was introduced into Judaism. Plus, he is usually really good about footnoting his statements with references to kabbalistic works where you can go and see for yourself.

      That should be enough to get you started.

      Hope this helps,

      Kol tuv,

      YB

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  2. Due to the length of my comments I’ve divided them into two parts. I’ve placed what I think is the most important issue first though it’s in response to the end of the post.

    Part I:

    1) I want to point out to the readers of this blog that both the Modern Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox communities have serious problems, and I’m concerned with the good author’s assertiveness in turning everyone away from non-Hasidic Ultra-Orthodox yeshivoth. Although he doesn’t explicitly mention non-Hasidic/Haredi elementary and high schools, I’d like to discuss his pronouncement to “stop sending our young men to their yeshivoth to be ruined by the roshey yeshivah and brainwashed into submission to their agenda.” One who extends this advice to non-Hasidic Ultra-Orthodox elementary and high schools (an impression I imagine many readers will walk away with) is, in turn, liable to trade the many problems of the non-Hasidic Ultra-Orthodox, or Orthodox, community for those of the Modern Orthodox.

    Yes, it is important that our children receive a good “secular” education (“secular” being a misnomer according to the Rambam). I think it’s fair to say that Modern Orthodox schools will usually come out on the top in this important area. However, it is no-less important that our children receive a solid education not just in Torah learning for the moment (while in school) but in learning Torah for life. I think it’s fair to say that non-Hasidic Ultra-Orthodox schools come out on the top with regard to inculcating students with both the ability and the drive to continue their learning after they move on from yeshivah. Frankly, an essential sociological reality relevant to not-a-few Modern Orthodox schools is students emerging without the benefit of strong encouragement towards serious learning of Torah after high school. That, coupled with being saddled with significant social influence bearing away from meticulous religious observance, should be cause for concern for the parent that hopes his son will choose to follow the Rambam instead of “going with the flow.”

    Considering that the author of this blog is not unaware of some of the problems among the Modern Orthodox (having previously expressed being “shocked at some of the problems with tzniut in the DL world”), I’m surprised that he would be so strident in pushing people away from the American Ultra-Orthodox (or “yeshivish”) community. And that brings me to another point: one must be careful not to conflate the Israeli Dati-Leumi and the American Modern Orthodox or, especially, the American Ultra-Orthodox with the Israeli Haredim.

    It seems to me that the above post suffers from de facto lack of distinction between Haredim in Israel and the non-Hasidic Ultra-Orthodox in America. Unlike in Israel, in America the latter will frequently advance to higher education and/or professional employment even when they’ve continued to learn in beis midrash after high school. And I don’t know about Israel but often, with the American Modern Orthodox, there is a wide gap between the MO “hoi polloi” and the rabbis, both in knowledge and in practice. The influence of this upon one’s children should they be sent to a Modern Orthodox high school must not be underestimated.

    Anyone who wants to enable his kids with the theoretical ability to seriously follow the Rambam and the drive to be meticulous in their religious observance should, in my opinion, certainly consider sending his son to a Ultra-Orthodox elementary and high school. Of course, it is valuable that individual parents receive advice on this choice, by the appropriate person, on a case-by-case basis taking into account things like their family situation, level of religious observance, and with an older child in particular.

    Sure, the Haredim have social-influence problems of their own but to completely discard the baby with the bathwater as the author suggests above is reckless and unwarranted. The grass is not greener on the other side and both groups have their unique challenges.

    Lastly, regarding the social influence among American Haredim or Ultra-Orthodox, that’s another thing that the author does not address in his above post. The author seems to be taking it as a given that what the Ultra-Orthodox educators may preach is going to brainwash people’s kids. Certainly with regard to elementary and high schools this is far from the reality, for better and worse. For example, in Ultra-Orthodox yeshivoth like (I don’t want to say names but I imagine you can take your pick if we’re talking about most yeshivoth outside of Lakewood) much if not the majority of the student body is from a background where they’ll watch television at home, in complete disregard of what the yeshivah proscribes! I don’t approve of this and it’s just one example but I’m trying to make the point that people shouldn’t walk away from this post brainwashed with notions about what’s sure to happen to their kids if they go to a non-Hasidic Ultra-Orthodox elementary school or high school.

    I’ve spoken above of elementary and high schools and although I don’t think “beis midrash” is so clear cut to give a blanket recommendation against all of them, that’s another story which, in my opinion, depends strongly on the one in question (as an extreme example I’d recommend against “Toras Moshe” of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman). And don’t forget that parental education and example plays a big role too and is essential for anyone who dreams his kids will follow the Rambam.

    I welcome the blog-owner’s (and everyone’s) comments to the above, whether they appear here or in a future post. (I’m still looking forward to a separate discussion regarding the extreme position to “stop purchasing their books”…).

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