For the week ending 9 May 2015 / 20 Iyyar 5775

Beyond the Bonfires

by Rabbi Yitzchak Botton
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The thirty-third day of the Omer (Lag B’Omer) has been established as a special day of celebration throughout the centuries. In Israel over five-hundred thousand people visit the resting place of the great Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, while countless others gather around bonfires in Eretz Yisrael and around the world. There are two reasons widely known for the great joy on this day: 1) It is the day of Rabbi Shimon’s passing; 2) On this day the students of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying (Maharil, Rema).

On the surface, these reasons seem difficult to accept. First of all, the day that a holy rabbi passes away is meant to be a day of solemn retrospect, not celebration. Secondly, although the fact that Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying would certainly be reason to stop the various customs of mourning practiced during this period; however, rejoicing after the death of so many (twenty-four thousand) seems inappropriate to say the least. Also, the fact that they stopped dying is because there were no more students left.

The Talmud explains that after the death of these twenty-four thousand students the world was desolate (of Torah) until Rabbi Akiva arrived in the south of Israel where he took five new students: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamuah, and taught them Torah. It was these five students that transmitted the Oral Torah to the next generation, ensuring that the Torah would not become lost at that time.

The Pri Chadash, based on the writings of the Arizal, explains that the reason for the festive celebration on Lag B’Omer is because on that day the Torah was saved from becoming lost.

Furthermore, according to the Arizal the day of Lag B’Omer has spiritual significance, as it is the day that G-d’s kindness and mercy awaken. Thus, it was precisely on this day that Rabbi Akiva gave semicha (rabbinic ordination) to his five new students.

We are faced with another question. Why is the day of Lag B’Omer associated solely with Rabbi Shimon and not the other rabbis mentioned?

From the time of the giving of the Torah the secrets of Kabbalah were taught only to a select group of Jewish leaders in each generation. In his time, permission was granted to Rabbi Shimon to record these teachings as well as to reveal new secrets that had been hidden until then. Through him the Zohar became the foundation of “Jewish Mysticism”. This unique quality caused Rabbi Shimon’s stature to rise above the other rabbis of his time, making him one of the most influential Jewish leaders throughout history. Also, the fact that Rabbi Shimon also died on this day gives him a unique connection to the day, more than the other rabbis.

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