Today is Lag Ba’Omer, the 33rd day of counting the Omer. While the Torah tells us that the period of the Omer has to do with agriculture and the only specific commandment is to count the days of the Omer daily, the Talmud made the Omer a period of semi-mourning. According to the Talmud, during the Omer 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva were killed by a plague, and the plague lifted on the 33rd day of the Omer. In memory of this plague traditional Jews do not shave or get haircuts, listen to live music, or have festive weddings during the period of the Omer. These restrictions are lifted on Lag Ba’Omer -- for some they are ended entirely on this day while for others they are suspended only for this day and then go back into effect for the rest of the Omer. Tonight and tomorrow you will see me with a fresh and long-awaited haircut, God willing.
Lag Ba’Omer is also believed to be the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, about whom I briefly wrote a few weeks ago. Rabbi Shimon was one of the great students of Rabbi Akiva; he and his son were sentenced to death by the Roman Empire for criticizing the Emperor and spent twelve years hiding in a cave.
According to the Zohar, on the day that Rabbi Shimon died his house was filled with light and fire as he taught his students. At the end of the day the fire subsided and Rabbi Shimon died. In subsequent years his students, in his honor, tried to replicate that experience and thus the custom of festive bonfires, singing and dancing in honor of Rabbi Shimon.
Last night in Israel, tragedy struck the main gathering in honor of Rabbi Shimon. Tens of thousands of people, mostly Haredim, gather every year at Mt. Meron near Safed, where Rabbi Shimon’s tomb is located. Authorities had urged the public not to attend the traditional festival due to fears of a COVID outbreak, but had nevertheless made preparations for up to about 25,000 people. The actual attendance turned out to be closer to 100,000. At the end of the festival a number of people fell down a slippery makeshift ramp leading down from the mountain and were crushed to death by those behind them who fell on top of them. As of this writing, 44 people were confirmed dead and an additional 150 or so are being treated in local hospitals.
Investigations are of course underway in Israel to understand how this happened and what can be done to prevent something similar from happening in the future. For now, all we can do is extend our condolences to the families of those who were killed, pray for healing for those who were injured, and extend our support to those in Israel who are dealing with recovery of the dead and treatment for those who were hurt. Magen David Adom is Israel’s main emergency medical service and if you want to contribute, go to afmda.org/donate .
As always, if you need to talk or I can do anything for you, please contact me via email at email@example.com or via phone at 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office as at the moment I continue to work mostly from home, although having been vaccinated I am available for in-person meetings in my synagogue office by request.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian