Today is the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar and traditional Jews celebrate Lag beOmer, the 33rd day of the Omer. Lag stands for the numbering of days in Hebrew (the letter lamed=30 and the letter gimel=3). The Omer is a period counting up to Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks commemorating the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai and a revived agricultural holiday. Many traditionally-minded Jews observe the entire 50 days of the Omer or parts thereof in a mourning-like state: no weddings will be held, no haircuts etc. Lag beOmer interrupts this semi-mourning period. Weddings take place today, and it is the day of bonfires, with marshmallows, hotdogs and everything else you can imagine.
Why today? And why at all?
One tradition recalls that on Lag be Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, a plague decimating the ranks of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples that had already killed 24.000 of his students ceased, recalling Rabbinic suffering and the perseverance of tradition. I always find this reasoning a bit disturbing because the situation did not really improve. The Roman armies continued to lay waste to the province, the messianically inspired Bar Kokhba revolt failed spectacularly and the consequences were far from pretty but who am I to deprive others of a party?
Another tradition holds that on that day, manna first began to fall from heaven for the Israelites—now that sounds like a reason to party!
Some date the yahrzeit (Yiddish for the anniversary of one’s death) of Shimon bar Yohai to Lag beOmer. Shimon bar Yohai was one of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples and is traditionally regarded as the author of the Zohar, a central kabalistic work from the 13th century, which recalls the mystical roots of the holiday, likewise a 13th century invention. There are a number of Chassidic stories connected to the holiday as well (see Velveteen Rabbi’s link).
Lag beOmer was a relatively minor holiday revived by nationalists who determined that the day was to celebrate a national liberation that had rid the Jews of the Romans. In fact, they turned the failed Bar Kokhba revolt into a success story and stressed that the Roman armies suffered heavy losses (it took them a while to suppress the revolt but still, this is the Roman Empire we are talking about). The Roman successes were, it was claimed, short-lived, with the Jews still in existence while the Roman Empire had vanished. Bar Kokhba, the leader of this rebellion, became a hero for children, and Lag beOmer one of the ways to remember him.
This secularizing pre-1967 interpretation of the rebellion was spurned by archeological findings made in the 1950s by archeologists who were also significant military figures such as Moshe Dayan and Ygal Yadin. And yes, the coins, tefilin (phylacteries), and letters left behind by Bar Kokhba and his followers tell us much about the lives of second-century Jews, even disregarding the (in my eyes failed) attempts to press these 1800-year old artifacts into national service.