About a month ago, we published a blog reflecting on Passover in the midst of Coronavirus. Today, we are going to take a look at a lesser known Jewish holiday which also involves a plague, Lag B’Omer. This Holiday took place on 11th of May this year.
There is a Biblical commandment to count the days and weeks from the Passover, to the approaching holiday of Shavuot (Feast of Weeks or Pentecost) when the first fruits of the wheat harvest would be offered in the temple. During this time, an omer (ancient measurement) of barley would be offered each day.
During these 49 days between Passover and Shavuot (God’s appointed feasts, see Leviticus 23:12) on the spring calendar, many religious Jews observe a practice of mourning. There are no weddings, or playing music, and people refrain from cutting their hair. This may seem odd as the practice of counting towards a holiday usually is accompanied by excitement and anticipation. The holiday of Lag B’Omer has a slightly ambiguous nature as it is not a biblical one, nor even a one that is found in early Jewish traditions such as the Mishnah. (Note: Messianic Jewish leaders do not recognize Orthodox Rabbis as their authority and do not practice many of the extra Biblical traditions of the Orthodox Jews).
However, the 33rd day of the Omer Count is Lag B’Omer (Lag means 33 in Hebrew and B’Omer means during the Omer) and is a momentary pause to mourning and is a day of rejoicing. Wedding and haircuts take place, massive bonfires are lit and people gather around them to sing and dance.
The typical explanation that is given for both this time of mourning and the rejoicing of Lag B’Omer is an odd story, many details of which have been lost to history. It is set in the generation after the destruction of the temple and relates to Rabbi Akiva, one of the most respected Rabbis in Jewish history.
The story goes that he had many disciples who studied under him and learned Scripture. However, during the time of the Omer counting, a plague struck them and 24,000 disciples perished. Such a huge loss of life threatened much Jewish scholarship and knowledge, a serious blow to the Jewish people in the aftermath of the destruction of the temple a generation earlier.
However, Rabbi Akiva never stopped teaching and although he only had five students, they all became major figures in Jewish thought. According to various versions of the story, the plague stopped on Lag B’Omer, hence the time of rejoicing.
Although the accuracy of this story is debated by historians and suggestions are made that these students were killed during Roman persecution in connection to the Bar Kochba revolt, the significance of the plague story is one that will probably resonate with many of us this year and I believe there are several lessons we can draw from this strange story.
We are witnessing an unprecedented shutdown of the global economy, schools and houses of worship remain closed throughout much of the world, millions infected by COVID-19 and at the time of this writing over 299,000 deaths.
In spite of all this, the celebration of Lag B’Omer can represent a chance to remind ourselves that God remains faithful. He may allow hardship, suffering, setbacks and loss, but the day will come that we will be able to gather and rejoin that the plague of Coronavirus is behind us.
Right now is a time of hardship, but God has faithfully brought his people through greater hardships and will bring us through to a time of joy. In the meantime, we should mourn with those who are mourning and suffering due to the loss and pain that this modern day plague has inflicted on us.
“Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under the heaven. A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time of wailing and a time of dancing… a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing”- Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 2:1,4-5b
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