Celebrating Lag B'Omer: Tales, traditions and tips.
Hebrew: ל"ג בעומר
What is Lag B'Omer?
Lag B'Omer refers to the thirty-third day of the Counting of the Omer (Sfirat Ha'Omer) and the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar. There is a biblical mandate to count the Omer and it is a mitzvah to count seven complete weeks from the day after Passover (Pesach) night ending with the festival of Shavuot on the fiftieth day. The 49 days of the Omer correspond both to the time between the physical exodus from Egypt and the spiritual liberation of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai on Shavuot. It was also the time between the barley harvest and the wheat harvest in ancient Israel.
When Lag B'Omer commences on a Saturday night the Rabbinate ask the public to postpone their bonfires until Sunday night so that the Sabbath will not be desecrated in any way.
How is Lag B'Omer celebrated in Israel?
Lag B'Omer is a fun time for school children in Israel. They get together with their classmates, light huge bonfires, roast potatoes in the fire, sing songs and play games.
Teens get together, sometimes on the beach, light their fires and celebrate with a "kum-zits" long into the night. The word 'kumzits' is derived from the Yiddish words קום (come) and זיץ (sit). The word is used to describe an evening gathering that Jews partake in. Everyone sits together, be it on the floor or on chairs, and sing spiritually moving songs. Older teens incorporate a sleep-over with their 'kumzits'. You'll see them in their sleeping bags scattered on the beaches.
Tens of thousands gather at Har Meron (Mt. Meron) in Northern Israel, near Tzfat. Here lie the remains of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a disciple of Rabbi Akivah and his son, Rabbi Elazar b'Rabbi Shimon. It is at Har Meron on Lag B'Omer where the "Yahrtzeit," or the anniversary of the death of this great scholar is commemorated. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai lived in the immediate aftermath of the Second Temple. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai revealed the secrets of kabbalah in the form of the Zohar, a text of Jewish mysticism on this day and this is celebrated too. It is said that Rabbi Shimon wast bathed in light and fire and for this reason Jews light bonfires to commemorate the great fire that surrounded Rabbi Shimon.
Another Lag B'Omer tradition is for little boys, aged 3, to have their very first hair cut. In Israel, it is traditional to hold this ceremony at Har Meron. Called an 'opsherenish' (Yiddish for shearing), it is the point at which a Jewish infant becomes a Jewish boy and it is marked by cutting off his long tresses. This rite of passage is just as significant to some as a Bar Mitzvah ceremony is when a Jewish boy becomes a Jewish man at age 13. The 3 year old boy is presented with his first talit katan, the ritual fringes that he will wear from this day on, underneath his shirt, and for the rest of his life.
According to tradition, the 'opsherenish', was first practiced by the "Ari" as he is commonly called - the Kabbalistic master Isaac Luria Ashkenazi (1534–1572).
During Sfirat HaOmer, the Counting of the Omer, it is not permitted to cut your hair - shaving is also forbidden. On Lag B'Omer however, it is permitted. Jewish men who observe this practice will cut their hair and shave their beards.
Celebrations between Pesach and Shavuot are restricted, but on Lag BaOmer they are permitted and so it is a very popular day to have a wedding.
Safe fire lighting practices
Moms & dads please take note...
- Just before Lag B"omer school children might wander around the neighborhood scavenging for scraps of wood that they can use in their bonfires. So if you have scraps of wood or garden trimmings, now would be a good time to put them outside for the kids to collect. Don't be surprised if you see old shelves, chairs and other bits of furniture in the wood piles.
- Please remind your children about the dangers of fire and precautions they should follow.
- Please explain to the children about the dangerous fumes that emanate from wood that has been treated with varnish, paint and other highly flammable products. These fumes can cause terrible reactions especially in children who suffer with allergies and asthma. Make sure asthmatic children have their inhalers on hand.
- Make sure there is a responsible adult at your child's Lag B'Omer celebration.
Suggestions and tips from the Israel Society or the Protection of Nature
- Make fewer fires. Join up with your friends and other classmates.
- Make smaller fires and help reduce the smoke pollution
- Protect the natural wood resources. Don't cut down our precious trees. Dead or alive trees are part ofthe natural ecosystem. Use wood from items which are no longer in use. Besides saving trees, modest fires reduce pollution.
- Choose a safe area for your bonfire that does not increase the risk of a fire spreading out of control.
Tips for building your fire
- The base of the fire should be in a hole in the ground. Place stones around the fire, to prevent spreading.
- Don't burn items from plastic and rubber like bottles and car tires. These increases the level of air pollution and are hazardous to your health.
- Make sure that at the end of the evening your extinguish the fire properly with lots of water and then cover the area with sand.
- Clean up! Food scraps, plastic bags and trash cans interfere, damage or destroy the local fauna and flora.
Lag B'Omer trivia
The word "Lag" is not really a word; it's an acronym and represents the number 33 in Hebrew. It is a combination of the Hebrew letters Lamed -ל and Gimel - ג. The numerical equivalent of the Hebrew letter "lamed" is thirty. Similarly, the numerical equivalent of the letter "gimel" is three. Together, they add up to 33!
- Hebrew English and transliterated Lag B'Omer words and phrases, and free word-sheets by topic
- Jokes to tell around your bonfire
A tip for your family's laundry-hanger-upper!
Don't hang or leave laundry outside to dry on Lag B'Omer. It will smell of smoke in the morning and have to be rewashed.