The thirty-third day of sefiyrath 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 that feature massive bonfires, among other things. The day is also colored with intensive study of the Zohar and special trips with parties and dancing to the [supposed] grave of Rebbi Shim’on ben Yohay in Meron, Israel. As with most practices invented in more recent history, the exact origins of this day are unknown. And although it at one time was meant to commemorate the end of the plague/execution that was said to affect the students of Rebbi Aqiva in b.Yevamoth 62b, it has been co-opted by kabbalists and has now become the flagship day of latter-day mysticism and a celebration of the Zohar – with Rebbi Shim`on ben Yohay as its patron saint.
More than simply being unknown in origin, the celebratory practices and the piles of “halakhic rulings” that have accrued in its name 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 counting of the omer, it is referred to as a tradition from some of the Geonim that it was on this particular day that the students of Rebbi Aqiva stopped dying/being killed (cf. Menahem Meiri, Beth HaBehiyrah to b.Yevamoth 62b). And it is for this reason that there was [supposedly] a call for some 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 began to be further 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 Sefiyrath Ha-Omer, chapter 7) he equates the hiylula (pop. “yahrtzeit”) of Rebbi Shim’on ben Yohay with the 33rd day of the omer. According to the Zohar literature, the anniversary of Rebbi Shim’on’s death is actually a day of celebration and great joy (cf. Idra Zuta, Parashath Ha’aziynu). This connection is centered around the false claim that Rebbi Shim’on ben Yohay was actually the author of the Zohar, having supposedly written it while hiding in a cave with his son from the Romans (cf. b. Shabbath 33b). According to the Arokh HaShulhan (493:7), Lag Ba-Omer is the day when Rebbi Shim’on ben Yohay emerged from the cave.
Based on reports of the personal practices of Luria and seeking to imitate him, masses of people go to the [supposed] grave of Rebbi Shim’on in Meron to seek his blessing. Additionally, there has developed a practice of dancing around bonfires and singing praise songs to Rebbi Shim’on ben Yohay (e.g. “Bar Yohay nimshakhta ashreykha…”), and sometimes silk scarves or other elements of clothing are burned while reciting certain kabbalistic incantations in an effort to dispel demons. The entire enterprise has turned into a dangerous, primitive, and idolatrous activity that certainly falls under the category of darkhey emoriy (“ways of the Amorite”). Many people end up turning to Rebbi Shim’on in prayer, making all sorts of requests to their patron saint of the Zohar, committing one of the simplest forms of avodhah zarah – placing intermediaries between oneself and God (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Avodhah Zarah 1:1-2:1).
I have written before on this site about the dubious origins and forgery of the Zohar literature. 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 Ssadduqiyn (“Sadducees”), the heretics who denied the Oral Torah itself. The Rambam mentions this illegal tendency in Hilkhoth Parah Adhumah 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 Ssadduqiyn used to assert that the preparation of the parah was not acceptable (kasher) except for those who, [after having immersed in a miqweh,] wait until after the sun completely sets (i.e. sseth ha-kokhaviym). Therefore [in order to completely dismiss with their heretical contentions] the beth diyn (i.e. the Sanhedriyn) 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 miqweh], 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. 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 Yosiy in the following story related in b.Pesahiym 100a.
“Once Rebbi Shim’on ben Gamli’el, Rebbi Yehudhah, and Rebbi Yosiy were reclining [together around a table for a meal] in Akko and [while they were eating] the sun set, signaling the beginning of Shabbath. Rebbi Shim’on ben Gamli’el said to Rebbi Yosiy, ‘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 Yehudhah our colleague?’ He said to him, ‘Each and every day you prefer my halakhic opinions more than those of Rebbi Yehudhah, 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 Meghiyllath Ester, 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 Yosiy.”
There were two opinions about what was necessary if, while eating at a se’odhah on Friday that began after Minhah, the sun completely set:  the opinion (held by Rebbi Yehudhah) that once the sun sets it is necessary to interrupt the se’odhah, re-wash, make qiydhush, and begin a completely new meal in honor of Shabbath, and  the opinion (held by Rebbi Yosiy) that it was not necessary at sundown to interrupt at all. Between these two opinions, the one held by Rebbi Yosiy had already been determined as the halakhah. However, Rebbi Shim’on ben Gamli’el decided to ask Rebbi Yosiy if he wanted to be hoshesh to the other opinion, since Rebbi Yehudhah was there with them, as apparently some form of respect to his participation in the meal. But Rebbi Yosiy, immediately sensing the potential damage that could be done due to the many students observing their teachers and listening intently to their conversation, reacts very harshly and makes a clear and unquestionable declaration about which opinion was actually the halakhah. He even quotes Ahashwarosh who, returning from the garden to find Haman prostrate on Ester’s couch, says, “Will you also (i.e. after everything else) rape the queen with me here in the house?!” Rebbi Yosiy intends, le-‘aniyuth 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 Yehudhah was not heresy and he was not a Ssadduqiy, but nevertheless they made sure that everyone in attendance understood clearly that his position was not the halakhah and should 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 through non-participation. The incredible number of urban myths and legends regarding actual Jewish law and practice among the general populace of religious Jews is proof-positive that too many have stood by and consented to the inventions of regional scholars without basis in the received halakhic tradition, and even more 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 lack the authority of lawmaker in respect to halakhah and retain solely the authority of a lawyer. All any rabbi, teacher, scholar, or beyth diyn 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 the 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. When faced with a more-or-less docile normative orthodox mainstream and a pushy elitist Haredi-Hasidic fringe, the latter was either tolerated by the former or – as the case usually is – succeeded in intimidating them. As a result, the twisted religious outlook of the once Haredi-Hasidic fringe has been allowed to infect and overtake the vast majority of Judaism. In the name of “unity” between Jews (which is ludicrous since the Haredi-Hasidic camp unites with no one), we have allowed heresy, corruption, and a plethora of contrived Eurocentric practices to enter Judaism and masquerade as authentic. If we do not stop giving them our tacit consent and passive allegiance, then they may well destroy and obscure the message and purpose of the Torah and the Jewish people, delaying the redemption indefinitely (haliylah). 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 yeshivoth to be ruined by the roshey 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 yeshivoth, printing presses, seminaries, and rabbinical programs that are beautiful and produce wonderful young Jewish men and women committed to 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 the meqori 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 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,