Seasons - Then and Now

For the week ending 2 May 2015 / 13 Iyyar 5775

Lag BOmer

by Rabbi Chaviv Danesh
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During Sefirat Ha’Omer we observe some laws of mourning because it was at this time that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died. On Lag B’Omer, however, not only does the mourning period come to a halt, but there is even an idea to increase in happiness.[1] The commentaries investigate the rationale for the extra happiness that we are meant to experience on Lag B’Omer. Some suggest that it is based on the tradition that on Lag B’Omer Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying.[2] However, this is hard to understand, since the reason why they stopped dying was because they had all already died![3] Others suggest that the source of the happiness is the fact that this day marks the yortzeit (day of death) of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. However this is also not an obvious reason to celebrate. There were many righteous people who died throughout the ages and never do we make a celebration on their yortzeit.[4] In fact there is a custom to go to the other extreme and fast on the yortzeit of a righteous person, as many do on Moshe Rabbeinu’s yortzeit.[5] What then is the reason for the increase in happiness on Lag B’Omer?

To understand the reason why we stop the mourning process on Lag B’Omer we first need to investigate the reason behind mourning during the Omer period. After all, throughout history there were many tragedies that befell the Jewish People in which large populations died in a short period of time and yet the Rabbis did not designate a mourning period to commemorate those disasters. Furthermore the Ramban tells us that the period between Pesach and Shavuot is similar to Chol Hamoed,[6] making it an even more inopportune time for mourning. Therefore we must ask ourselves: What was unique about the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students to necessitate such an extensive mourning period at such an inopportune time?

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 86a) says that Rabbi Akiva was the source of the entire Oral Torah.[7] Each one of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva was in turn meant to be a link in the chain for transmission of a unique portion of the Oral Torah that Rabbi Akiva taught. The death of the students of Rabbi Akiva was therefore not only the death of individuals but also a direct threat to the transmission of Torah.[8] With the loss of each student another layer of Torah was forgotten forever. This is the reason why we specifically mourn the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students over other tragedies.

With this we can begin to understand why it was fitting to institute customs of mourning at a time that is compared to Chol Hamoed. The days of Sefirat Ha’Omer are meant to be a time to prepare ourselves to receive the Torah on Shavuot. However, the death of the students of Rabbi Akiva during this time and the loss of Torah that accompanied it made this period bittersweet. The Torah that we prepare ourselves to receive on Shavuot is no longer on the level of the Torah that we could have had if Rabbi Akiva’s students would have been able to transmit their Torah. This is why the days of the Omer are the most fitting time to mourn the loss of Torah that came through the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students.[9]

On Lag B’Omer however, things took a different turn.[10] Basing himself on the Gemara (Yevamot 62b) the Arizal explains that on the 33rd day of the Omer Rabbi Akiva found five new students[11] who became the new transmitters of his Torah.[12] Based on this we can understand one aspect of the happiness on Lag B’Omer. During the Omer we observe customs of mourning because of the intense loss of Torah that Klal Yisrael experienced, but on Lag B’Omer, we celebrate because the loss of Torah ceased, and the dissemination of Torah continued through the ordination and survival of Rabbi Akiva’s new students.[13]

Let’s now address the opinion that says Lag B’Omer marks the yortzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The Mishna in Sotah (Sotah 49b) says that the death of Rabbi Akiva marked the end of “kavod haTorah” (honor of the Torah). Rashi explains that this is because Rabbi Akiva was able to expound on even the crowns on the tops of the letters of the Sefer Torah.[14] The Maharal explains that the crowns on top of the letters represent the secrets of the Torah that are too lofty to be put into words.[15] Rabbi Akiva had the unique ability to bring out these secrets through expounding on every drop of ink that is on the parchment of a Torah scroll. There is no greater honor to the Torah than showing how there is not even a drop of ink without depth and meaning.

Of Rabbi Akiva’s five new students, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was the one who specifically received this deeper part of the Torah from Rabbi Akiva.[16] The commentaries point out that on Lag B’Omer, the day when Rabbi Shimon left this world,[17] he revealed some of these deeper teachings to his students.[18] In fact a major portion of the Zohar that we have today is based on the teachings that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai revealed on Lag B’Omer. The B’nei Yisaschar explains that this is one reason behind the custom to light bonfires on Lag B’Omer. The bonfires symbolize the light of the Torah that Rashbi revealed on this day.[19] Now we can understand why as opposed to the yortzeit of other tzadikim we celebrate the yortzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. It is because it was on this day that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai lit up the world with his revelation of the secrets of the Torah.

To conclude, according to both opinions above,[20] the happiness of the day of Lag B’Omer stems from the continuation and revelation of Torah that took place on this day. Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen explains that every year on Lag B’Omer the same revelation of Torah repeats itself and we are given the opportunity to understand the depth and beauty of the Torah on another level.[21] May we all merit taking full advantage of this special day.

[1]Orach Chaim 493:2

[2]Meiri to Yevamot 62b; Maharil; See Orach Chaim 493:2

[3]See Pri Chadash to Orach Chaim 493:2.

[4]See Pri Tzadik, Lag B’Omer, who asks this question and gives a different reason than the one in this article. See Rabbi Yaakov Hillel’s sefer Ad Hagal Hazeh who explains his words.

[5]Tur, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 580

[6]Ramban to Vayikra 23:36; see also Kad Hakemach, under “Atzeret”

[7]Sanhedrin 86a

[8]See Yevamot 62b.

[9]Based on shiur from Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, shlita

[10]See the Ben Ish Chai’s “Hilula Rabbah” where he explains according to kabbalah that the essence of the day deserves celebration. Perhaps it is the essence of the day that caused these events to happen exactly then.

[11]Sha’ar Hakavanot 87a; See Yevamot 62b; See the Chida’s Tov Ayin 18:87; See also the Chida’s Mar’it Ha’ayin, Likutim 7:8 that the girsa “yom shemet Rashbi” is ata’ut sofer and that it should say “yom simchat Rashbi” (referring to the simcha of Rashbi on the day that he was ordained); See Kaf Hachaim 26 to Orach Chaim 493:2.

[12]Sanhedrin 86a

[13]See sefer “Hilula Rabbah” of the Ben Ish Chai who says that based on the reason of the Arizal Lag B’Omer is a special day for all five of Rabbi Akiva’s students and that there it is therefore fitting to visit all of their graves.

[14]See Menachot 29b

[15]See Chidushei Aggadot of the Maharal to Menachot 29b; See Afikei Mayim of Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, Sefirat Ha’Omer v’Shavuot, Inyan 12 and 17; See also Tanchuma, Chukat 8 that says even things that weren’t revealed to Moshe Rabbeinu were revealed to Rabbi Akiva.

[16]See Gittin 67a; See Afikei Mayim, Sefirat Ha’Omer v’Shavuot, Inyan 17

[17]Pri Etz Chaim, Sha’ar 22 perek 6; See Birkei Yosef to Orach Chaim 493:2; See Kaf Hachaim 26 to Orach Chaim 493:2; Chayei Adam 131:11; Ya’arot D’vash, chelek bet, drush 11; Siddur of Rabbi Zalman; Poked Akarim of Rabbi Tzadok, ot 6; See Pri Tzadik, Lag B’Omer; Bnei Yisaschar Ma’amrei Chodesh Iyar 3:2; Pri Tzadik and B’nei Yisaschar also suggest based on Sotah 13b that this was also the day that Rashbi was born.

[18]Bnei Yisaschar, Ma’amrei Chodesh Iyar, 3:2-3

[19]Bnei Yisaschar, Ma’amrei Chodesh Iyar, 3:2-3; The name of the sefer - “Zohar” - also hints at this idea.

[20]See See Kaf Hachaim 26 to Orach Chaim 493:2 who concludes that perhaps both events took place on this day.

[21]See Pri Tzadik, Lag B’Omer.

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