Sunday, April 25, 2010

Lag B'omer Celebrations

Lag B'Omer is one of the highlights of the year.  It is celebrated in a unique manner- many people make bonfires and shoot arrows and dance and sing.  Celebrations are wonderful, and I certainly say that in our long and bitter galus, we could use more such days to chase away the gloom and doom that weighs heavily on our shoulders.

But Lag B'Omer is an odd day to celebrate, I think.  Yes, the talmidim of Rebbi Akiva stopped dying on that day.  The reason they stopped dying is because every last one of them was dead.  There was nobody left to die.  This we celebrate?  The  famous talmidim of Rebbi Akiva that we know of were those that he taught after all the others had died.

As for the "Hilula of Rav Shimon bar Yochai" that is mentioned in the Zohar- that, too, is difficult to understand.  If it is the yahrtzeit of Rav Shimon bar Yochai, the day of the death of a tzadik is not the time to make a party.  On the contrary; there are many Gemaros that say that one should fast and mourn on the anniversary of a Tzadik's death:  the suggested fast days we know of are the seventh of Adar, for Moshe Rabbeinu, Rosh Chodesh Nissan for Nadav and Avihu, the tenth of Nissan for Miriam, and so on.  So why are we celebrating on the day of Rav Shimon bar Yochai's death?

The Zohar that calls it a "hilula" means something else entirely.  Although the day of a tzadik's death is a day of Middas Hadin, a day of sadness and introspection for the treasure we lost, that is only on Earth.  In Shamayim, it is a day of rejoicing, like a day a Kallah is brought to her Chassan.  In Shamayim, it's a Yom Tov, a mo'eid of Hillula.  On Earth, among the living, it may be a mo'ed, but it's a mo'eid like Tisha Ba'av.

I understand that what I've written seems disingenuous, and seems to denigrate a holy minhag that has existed perhaps for millennia, certainly for hundreds of years.   As for what I said about their not dying anymore because they were all dead, well, it's no different than the fifteenth of Av, when the generation of the Midbar stopped dying because they, too, were all dead, but we celebrate the end of the gzeira ra'ah.  Also, at least Rebbi Akiva remained alive, and he ultimately managed to teach his Torah to other talmidim.  As for Rav Shimon bar Yochai's death being a sad loss for mankind, but we are all told that on the day of his death he revealed many secrets of Toras Hanistar to us, so it's like the day of Mattan Torah of Toras Nistar.

(UPDATE: A comment came in in May of 2018/Iyar 5778 pointing out that the Gemara BB 121a and as explained by the Rashbam says that the fifteenth of Av is celebrated not because the dor hamidbar finished dying, but because the Dibbur returned to Moshe Rabbeinu.  (If not for the Rashbam, the Gemara might be read to mean that the tamu is the reason and the dibbur is a siman of the simcha, evidence that the matzav of nezifah had ended with the death of the last of the dor hamidbar and simcha had returned.)
רב רב דימי בר יוסף אמר רב נחמן יום שכלו בו מתי מדבר דאמר מר עד שלא כלו מתי מדבר לאלא היה דיבור עם משה שנאמר ויהי כאשר תמו כל אנשי המלחמה למות מקרב העם וסמיך ליה וידבר ה' אלי לאמר אלי היה הדיבור 

שכלו בו מתי מדבר. במדרש איכה יום שבטל בו החפר דאמר ר' לוי כל ערב תשעה באב היה כרוז יוצא הכל יצאו לחפור חפרין וישנין בהן ובשחרית הכרוז יוצא יבדלו החיים מן המתים והיו בודקין אותן ונמצאו ט"ו אלף ופרוטרוט חסרין בכל שנה וכך עשו מ' שנה יום לשנה יום לשנה הרי מ' שנה בשנה אחרונה עשו כן בדקו עצמן ונמצאו שלמים אמרו שמא טעינו בחשבון וכן בי' בו וכן בי"א וכן בי"ב וכן בי"ג ובי"ד עד דאיתמלי סיהרא כיון דאיתמלי סיהרא אמרו ביטל הקב"ה אותה גזירה קשה מעלינו ועשו משתה ושמחה ויו"ט: דאמר מר כו'. ולכך עשו ימי משתה ושמחה על הדיבור שחזר למשה: לא היה דיבור עם משה. פה אל פה כבתחלה אבל אם הוצרכו לדיבור כגון במעשה דקרח שהיה אחר מעשה המרגלים היה מדבר על ידי מלאך או באורים ותומים אי נמי לא היה מדבר עמו אלא על ידי צורך מעשה הצריך להם: אלי היה הדיבור. דמצי למכתב ויאמר ה' אלי כדכתיב לעיל ויאמר ה' אלי אל תצר את מואב אי נמי מדסמכו לויהי כאשר תמו קדריש הכי ולא ממשמעותא דקרא אלא מייתורא דויהי כאשר תמו דקרא יתירא הוא: )

That being the case, one might propose that the celebration of Lag Ba'omer as well is not because there was nobody left to die. It is because with the end of the gzeirah, Reb Akiva was able to begin the mesora of Torah to Klal Yisrael again, similar to the return of the dibbur to Moshe Rabbeinu.)

In defense of my seemingly "haskoolisheh" post, I would like to point out that nothing that I've written originated with me.  Everything I wrote is lifted- almost verbatim- from (second paragraph) the Pri Chadash in OC 493:2, and (paragraphs three and four) from the Chasam Sofer in Parsha Emor.  They are the ones who disapproved of the party atmosphere of Lag Ba'omer and the mass gathering in Tzfas, not me.

The Chasam Sofer's words were written in a eulogy he delivered upon hearing of the disastrous Earthquake of the Galilee that occurred on Sunday January 1, 1837- 24 Teves, 5997.  That earthquake hit Tveria and Shchem and destroyed most of the Jewish section of Tzfas, leaving thousands of Jews dead; adding insult to injury, it barely touched the Arab section.  The Jewish community of Tzfas, destitute even before the earthquake, was decimated, dislocated, and plagued by injury, infection, and disease.  The Chasam Sofer suggests that this was divine punishment visited upon us for ignoring Yerushalayim.  He says that for around one hundred years prior to that date, nobody wanted to live in Yerushalayim, but instead everyone went to Tzfas to be in the proximity of Rav Shimon bar Yochai's grave.  He says this was a terrible insult to Yerushalayim, the Gate of Heaven, the source of all Kedusha.  He brings from the Ya'avetz that even now there is a mitzvah of Aliya le'Regel, (though I haven't found the teshuva he's referring to,)  and we, as a people, were punished for insulting the kedusha and centrality of Yerushalayim.

Eli, in the comments, notes that "it was also found (in the Cairo Genizah) that in the times of the early Geonim, Iyar 18th was considered the yahrzeit of Yehoshua Bin-Nun, and, accordingly, a fast day."  The Chasam Sofer in the above hesped says that Yehoshua bin Nun's yahrtzeit is the twenty sixth of Nissan, though.

So, if your Rosh Yeshiva tells you that you can't go dance in Miron because it's bittul Torah and hollelus, at least you know that while your Rosh Yeshiva won't win any popularity contests, he'll be unpopular together with the Pri Chadash, the Chasam Sofer, and the Geonim.

But in the end I have to admit that Lag B'Omer, whether it really has any intrinsic deep meaning or it's just fun, is certainly a good and healthy way to enjoy the achdus and spiritual aspirations of Klal Yisrael.  Like many other good minhagim, you get out of it what you imbue into it.  As George Bernard Shaw wrote,
I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can't find them, make them.

Le'shana haba'ah be'Uman!

Thank you DixieYid for the photograph.


Someone sent in a valuable yediyah from the Rama MiFano in his Mayan Ganim.  He says that the Gzeira of death on Reb Akiva's talmidim included him.  It was on Lag Ba'Omer that it became clear that the Gzeira against Reb Akiva was rescinded.  In that case, Lag Ba'omer is indeed precisely like Tes Vov b'Av.  


  1. One may understand what you wrote as saying that the Zohar connects RSBY day of Petirah to Lag Baomer. The Zohar does describe in length RSBY's Petirah, but gives no date. The Talimidim of the Arizal report him to participate on a יום שמחה for RSBY on Lag Baomer (apparently held long before the times of the Arizal), but do not say it's RSBY's Yahrzeit. The first printed source to make this connection (not including a faulty reading some read into the פרי עץ חיים) is the חמדת ימים.

  2. As I said, I was just quoting the Chasam Sofer. If it's not his yahrtzeit, how is the day associated with RSBY?

  3. No one really knows. Pri-chadash and Chida say it's the day R. Shimon and the other four Talmidim started learning with R. Akiva (thus connecting it to the Ta'am given in the Rishonim, that Talmidim of R. Akiva stopped dying), but it seems this is something they thought of, not a Mesorah.

    It is even more strange that the Maharil also brings Lag Beomer as Yom Simcha, even though according to him the Talmidim of R. Akiva dies during the whole period between Pesach and Shavu'ot (excluding Shabat, Rosh Hodesh and Pesach).

  4. Interestingly, it was also found (in the Cairo Genizah) that in the times of the early Geonim, Iyar 18th was considered the yahrzeit of Yehoshua Bin-Nun, and, accordingly, a fast day.

  5. It's a pretty odd day, I've never really felt like I understood it.

    (I changed my nom de guerre from NonymousG)

  6. Nosson, for some of us, ivdu...b'simcha is a hard mitzva to be mekayeim. Historical forensics notwithstanding, any day you can energize the sense of simcha in a context of avodas Hashem is a good day.

  7. You bring to mind my son's derasha: v'samachta b'chagecha -- v'lo the rest of the year.

    The good ol' Ta'amei haMinhagim has a multi-page kuntres on Lag BaOmer explaining it roots, why it is a Yom Tov, etc. and he includes a response to the Chasam Sofer, who in this matter is a da'as yachid. RSBY himself said to make it a party day. As to why it should be different than the yahrzeit of Moshe, Aharon, etc. - I am sure you notice that all those personalities are mentioned in Torah sheb'Ksav while RSBY and Rabbi Akiva are the forefathers of Torah sheb'al Peh. Why that makes a difference -- see R' Tzadok in Pri Tzadik.

  8. of course there is the contrary drasha: mi'shenichnas adar marbim be'simcha, but the rest of the year is also be'simcha.

    on the other hand, why should we make the Torah appear to have predicted erroneously when it says: "tachas asher lo avad'tem ... be'simcha..."

  9. Maybe it's a result of that old frontal lobotomy, but it seems to me that if the Taamei Haminhagim has a multi-page arichus on it, it's not a good sign.

  10. I don't understand the idea we celebrate the end of a gezeira ra. How many tragedies do we commemorate the end of? Do we celebrate the end of the Inquisition? The Crusades? Why is this different? Also the Chasam Sofers statement on the earthquake bothers me. It sounds like the argument that the Holocaust took place because people weren't making aliya and were forsaking eretz yisrael and i never liked that argument either.

  11. The Chasam Sofer is not a navi and he is not giving the reason for the earthquake. It is clear from his words that he is just telling people what they need to do teshuva for, and that their sins could expose them to middas hadin. That's why I wrote "The Chasam Sofer suggests...."

  12. Chazal tell us that for every forbidden ta'avah, there is a permissible outlet. Perhaps the Jewish genius created Lag Ba'Omer as a yom tov for pyromaniacs.

    Of course biur chometz accomplishes much the same, but the pressures of the day interfere with the full satisfaction.

  13. Yes, my youngest told me that on Lag BaOmer in Yerushalayim there are bonfires on every corner, with people dragging out all the combustibles they had saved for months.

    HaRav Yitzchak Grodzinsky was at our house yesterday, and he told me that someone had asked Rav Shach whether he should go to Tzfas to be at the kever of RASHBY, and Rav Shach told him "Go, but not on Lag BaOmer." Rav Grodzinsky himself said that he's been in Tzfas, maybe twice, but certainly not on Lag BaOmer. He said he's not the traveling type, this coming from a man halfway around the world from home collecting money for his Kollel.

  14. Speaking of Rav Grodzinsky, he told me that Eli says a shiur in Minchas Chinuch. We would all be interested in hearing what this week's topic is.

  15. Yahrtzei of Rashbi on Lag b'Omer?

  16. " it's no different than the fifteenth of Av, when the generation of the Midbar stopped dying because they, too, were all dead, but we celebrate the end of the gzeira ra'ah."

    There's a Tosfos someplace that says a remnant remained alive; the gezeira was forgiven during the final 40th year (when they slept in the graves from 9 Av til 15 Av).

  17. You must be thinking of Tosfos in Taanis 30b, which can be read to mean that. After all, who would lie in a grave unless he was a member of the generation that was under the gzeirah.

    Anyway, remember, the second paragraph is from the Pri Chadash. True, some people survived, but to celebrate the mechila of the curse to the few that remained alive after almost everyone else was dead is pretty cold.

  18. R YD Schlesinger quoted from the Rema MiPano who asks the Pri Chadash's question, and answers that really the gezeira was on Rebbi Akiva too, but that was annulled on Lag B'Omer, and that is why its a day of simcha.

  19. Thank you. I would like to see that inside. It would comport with the Tosfos in Taanis that the Gzeira was annulled for a few survivors on Tu B'Av. If you can find the mareh makom, please let us know.

  20. First column, sixth line:

  21. Good man. I'm putting it in. I'll even say it b'sheim omro.

  22. Ha! And, R Schlesinger remarked, now we know why people dance and jump in front of the Lag B'Omer fires, singing "Rebbi Akiva" songs at the top of their lungs...because the entire simcha is really about Rebbi Akiva being saved from the gezeira.

  23. FWIW, according to Bava Basra 121a with Rashbam, we don't celebrate 15 Av because they stopped dying; we celebrate that "the Dibbur" returned to Moshe Rabbeinu since the Dor Hamidbar passed.

    1. Thank you very much. I'm putting it into the post.