(Adapted from articles by Rav Shlomo Yoseif Zevin in Mo'adim B'Halacha and Rav Yehuda Shaviv in Yeshivat Har Etzion's Daf Kesher #132)
THE STUDENTS OF RABI AKIVA
Lag Ba'Omer as a special day within the Omer has its sources in the Rishonim.Meiri notes that he had a tradition from the Geonim (although we do not find this tradition in their extant writings) that on the thirty-third day of the Omer the students of Rabi Akiva stopped dying. Even earlier, the Sefer HaManhig writes that he heard from the Ba'al HaMaor that beginning on the thirty-third day of the Omer one is allowed to get married (something which is forbidden during the mourning period of the Omer). What is noteworthy here is that Lag Ba'Omer in and of itself has no significance, but it merely signals the end of the period of mourning. In fact, the Tashbetz highlights the inherent insignificance of Lag Ba'Omer by writing that the mourning period contained within the Omer does not end until the morning of the thirty-fourth day has come (and thus we apply the principle of "miktzat ha-yom k'kulo" – once a bit of the day has passed we can count the entire day as having passed, a concept that is important in both the laws of mourning and the laws of Nidda).
There is also an interesting comment made by theMaharil. He cites the Mahari Segel as saying that the students of Rabi Akiva only died on a total of thirty-three days during the Omer. Specifically, he notes that on any day on which tachanun is not said (Shabbat, Pesach, Rosh Chodesh) they did not die. As a result, even though this opinion claims that they did in fact die on the thirty-third day of the Omer, we still keep this day as a holiday as a symbol of the fact that after thirty-three days of dying the plague against them came to an end.
On one level, there is little difference between these two views. It is more or less accepted that one can get married on Lag Ba'Omer. Additionally, Rav Yitzchak Eizik Tirana writes that there is no tachanun said on this day, andRamo rules that one may get a haircut on this day (or on the Friday before if it falls out on Sunday). However, there is a difference with regard to when the mourning period is to begin. If the students died during the first part of the Omer, then clearly we should mourn them beginning with the second day of Pesach until the thirty-third day of the Omer. However, if they dies throughout the entire seven-week period, then there is no compelling reason to begin during the holiday of Pesach or during the festive month of Nissan. For that reason, Ramo advocates beginning on Rosh Chodesh Iyar and continuing until three days before Shavuot, with Lag Ba'Omer as a "day off" in the middle.
Whatever one holds, Ramo warns that there are two caveats. The first is that within a city, everyone should keep the same practice – either mourn during the first part of the Omer or the last. Having a city where everyone does what they want to do results in a violation of "lo titgodedu" – creating many subgroups and thus dividing the nation (see our Chabura on this topic). We should note that today most people tend to keep their own personal custom, and this warning of Ramo is rarely heeded. Ramo's second caveat, however, is more recognized today. He writes that whatever one decides to do, one must keep thirty-three days of mourning. Thus, one may not start his mourning period on Rosh Chodesh Iyar and stop it on Lag Ba'Omer, a mere eighteen days later.
RABI SHIMON BAR YOCHAI
One of the more interesting practices that has arisen on lag Ba'Omer is known as "hillula d'Rashbi," or the celebration of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, the Tanna and alleged author of the canonical mystical text the Zohar (I am not going to get into the debate over the true authorship of the Zohar at this point). TheAteret Zekeinim (O.C. 493) writes that there is a custom to visit his grave in Meron (northern Israel near Tzfat) and to say supplications. This practice may actually derive from similar Muslim rituals of visiting the graves of saints, popular in the late Middle Ages, which gave rise to the Jewish custom of doing the same. It should be noted that originally, this practice of hillula involved learning by the graves. The disintegration of that feature of this custom, combined with the fact that this is now celebrated as a rather raucous event has given rise to much opposition.
TheChatam Sofer seems to oppose the entire practice. He writes (Y.D. 233) that he refrained from supporting this custom because we may not invent holidays that have no basis in the Bible or talmud and are not being done in commemoration of a miracle. He is even doubtful if it should be celebrated at all. The Sho'el U'Meishiv (5:39) strengthens the question, noting that the yahrzeits of Torah scholars should be observed as days of mourning, introspection, and fasting, and not as days of partying. He further opposes the custom (as do many others) of burning clothing in bonfires near the grave, noting that it is a violation of "bal tashchit" (needless destruction of useful things) and that even the practice of burning clothing on the funeral pyres of kings was kept to a minimum and was only done with the clothing of the deceased (see also the Chikrei Lev of Rav Hayyim Hazzan, Y.D. 2:11).
While opposing the practice in general, the Shem Aryeh (O.C. 14) offers an interesting defense of this custom. Perhaps mindful of the Chatam Sofer's point that we may not invert holidays without textual basis or a miraculous pretext, he notes that there was in fact a miracle involved. Rabi Shimon bar Yochai was wanted by the Roman government during his lifetime, and had they caught him his death would have been gruesome and his body would likely not have been brought to burial. Thus, it is possible that people are celebrating the fact that he escaped the death warrant that was out on him and merited to die peacefully and be buried properly. Inventive as this view is, Rav Zevin rejects it. I would venture to say that a small minority of the masses of people who go to Meron nowadays on Lag Ba'Omer have this notion in mind.
WHY THE PARTY?
When all is said and done. Lag Ba'Omer comes across as a most curious holiday. We celebrate as a result of the termination of a plague of death as well as the yahrzeit of one of the greatest Jewish leaders in classical times. While the gemara in Ta'anit 30a attributes the celebrations on the fifteenth of Av to the cessation of the annual plague of death in the wilderness, there are other reasons for that holiday as well, and thus Lag Ba'Omer still requires explanation as to why we celebrate, as opposed to simply ceasing to mourn.
Perhaps the answer lies in the contrast between the students of Rabi Akiva and Rabi Shimon bar Yochai. Assuming the popular view that the students died because they failed to respect each other, we can construe them as being diametrically opposed to the great Tanna. In Pirkei Avot 4:17, Rabi Shimon bar Yochai states that there are three crowns: that of Torah, that of priesthood, and that of kingship, and the crown of a good name rises above them all. This fourth crown is not like that of a king, which can only be worn by one person at a time, but rather is meant to be worn by as many people as merit to wear it. The students of Rabi Akiva failed to realize this point. Each one of them saw only himself failing to appreciate the fact that their friend could also attain a high level of respectability. By missing this point, they undermined all that they had learned, and brought death upon themselves.
By contrast, Rabi Shimon bar Yochai attained the crown of a good name. By doing so, he was constantly involved in raising the quality of his own life, to the point where the Idra Zuta (a kabbalistic work) notes that he died with the word "chayim" – life – on his lips. Even in his death, Rabi Shimon bar Yochai and his message lived on. As such, his death is not so much a tragedy for the Jewish people as it is a celebration of eternal life, and thus is it somewhat fitting for us to rejoice on this day.
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