The Haircut Holiday: Lag BaOmer

Lag BaOmer "one one foot":

There is a Jewish holiday in late spring called "Lag BaOmer". This source sheet looks at the many threads that make up the story and customs behind Lag BaOmer.

Is there really a holiday that we celebrate with haircuts?

(א) נוֹהֲגִים שֶׁלֹּא לִשָּׂא אִשָּׁה בֵּין פֶּסַח לַעֲצֶרֶת עַד ל''ג לָעֹמֶר, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁבְּאוֹתוֹ זְמַן מֵתוּ תַּלְמִידֵי רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא; אֲבָל לְאָרֵס וּלְקַדֵּשׁ, שַׁפִּיר דָּמִי, וְנִשּׂוּאִין נָמֵי, מִי שֶׁקָּפַץ וְכָנַס אֵין עוֹנְשִׁין אוֹתוֹ. הַגָּה: מִיהוּ מִלַּ''ג בָּעֹמֶר וָאֵילָךְ הַכֹּל שָׁרֵי (אַבּוּדַרְהַם וּבֵית יוֹסֵף וּמִנְהָגִים).

(ב) נוֹהֲגִים שֶׁלֹּא לְהִסְתַּפֵּר עַד ל''ג לָעֹמֶר, שֶׁאוֹמְרִים שֶׁאָז פָּסְקוּ מִלָּמוּת.

(1) It is customary not to get married between Pesach and Shavuot, until Lag BaOmer (the 33rd day), because during that time, the students of Rabbi Akiva died. However, to do "erusin" and "kiddushin" (engagement and betrothal) is OK. And even for "nisuin" (marriage), if someone did so, we do not punish him. Rema: however, from Lag Ba'Omer onwards, all this is permitted (Abudraham, Beit Yosef & Minhagim).

(2) It is customary not to cut one's hair until Lag BaOmer, since it is said that that is when they stopped dying.

Context: The Shulchan Aruch was published by Rabbi Joseph Caro in 1563 as a “Code of Jewish Law”, explaining what to do in every situation that it could think of. In general it gives Sephardic practice, so the Rema (Rabbi Moses Isserles) wrote a gloss giving the Ashkenazic practice when it was different. There are 4 sections to the Shulchan Aruch:

Orach Chayim - the laws about Jewish time (prayer time and holidays)

Yoreh De’ah - the laws about Jewish living (kashrut, conversion, mourning, Israel)

Even Ha’ezer - the laws about getting married and divorced

Choshen Mishpat - the laws about business, money, and courts

This is in the part of Orach Chayim about Pesach.

What questions does this raise for you?

Days of the Omer?

(טו) וּסְפַרְתֶּ֤ם לָכֶם֙ מִמָּחֳרַ֣ת הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת מִיּוֹם֙ הֲבִ֣יאֲכֶ֔ם אֶת־עֹ֖מֶר הַתְּנוּפָ֑ה שֶׁ֥בַע שַׁבָּת֖וֹת תְּמִימֹ֥ת תִּהְיֶֽינָה׃ (טז) עַ֣ד מִֽמָּחֳרַ֤ת הַשַּׁבָּת֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔ת תִּסְפְּר֖וּ חֲמִשִּׁ֣ים י֑וֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֛ם מִנְחָ֥ה חֲדָשָׁ֖ה לַה'

(15) And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: (16) you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord.

Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Leviticus, right after the part where it talks about offering some of the wheat harvest on Passover and right before the part where it talks about offering some of the barley harvest on Shavuot. It is clear from the context that you start counting during Passover. An Omer is a measure of grain, here translated as a “sheaf”.

So when exactly do we start counting?

If the Omer period is about the harvest, how might Jewish farmers be feeling in this time leading up to the harvest?

So how do we count these days?

(א) בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹקֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל סְפִירַת הָעֹמֶר.

(ג) הַיּוֹם....​​​​​​​

Bountiful are You, Eternal One our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has made us holy with commandments and commanded us regarding the counting of the Omer.

Today is....days, which makes .... days and...weeks of the Omer.

Context: This blessing comes from the Evening Service in the siddur. It contains “Asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu” because it’s about something we’re commanded to do in the Torah. Also noteworthy about this period is that traditionally we don’t listen to live music (and we do study a chapter of Pirkei Avot each Shabbat), in addition to not having weddings and haircuts. This semi-mourning is partly because of the Rabbi Akiba “plague”, partly because of the uncertainty around the harvest, and partly because of the massacres by the Crusaders during this time.

When we count the days to Shavuot, why are we counting up instead of counting down?

So why is it called “Lag” BaOmer?

(יח) רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר בֶּן חִסְמָא אוֹמֵר, קִנִּין וּפִתְחֵי נִדָּה, הֵן הֵן גּוּפֵי הֲלָכוֹת. תְּקוּפוֹת וְגִימַטְרִיאוֹת, פַּרְפְּרָאוֹת לַחָכְמָה:

(18) Rabbi Eliezer son of Hisma said: the laws of mixed bird offerings and the key to the calculations of menstruation days these, these are the body of the halakhah. The calculation of the equinoxes and gematria are the desserts of wisdom.

Context: Pirkei Avot is a collection of quotes from the rabbis of the Mishnah. They lived from the years 300 BCE to 200 CE, and their sayings form a tractate of the Talmud. It’s one of the few tractates of the Mishnah which has no Gemara commenting on it, and it’s the only tractate of the Talmud which is about ethical/moral ways of living but not about Jewish law. Pirkei Avot is traditionally studied after Shabbat Mincha in the summer months (Passover to Shavuot), so it’s printed in its entirety at that spot in most siddurim.

Gematria is an alpha-numeric code. The word itself is Greek gematria (gamma - tri - a > gamma = 3). Aleph = 1, bet = 2, gimmel = 3, kaf = 20, kuf = 100, resh = 200.

How would you say 10 in gematria?

How would you say 11 in gematria?

How would you say 22 in gematria?

How would you say 33 in gematria?

Back to Rabbi Akiba - what happened with his students?

ר"ע אומר למד תורה בילדותו ילמוד תורה בזקנותו היו לו תלמידים בילדותו יהיו לו תלמידים בזקנותו שנא' בבקר זרע את זרעך וגו' אמרו שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא מגבת עד אנטיפרס וכולן מתו בפרק אחד מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה והיה העולם שמם עד שבא ר"ע אצל רבותינו שבדרום ושנאה להם ר"מ ור' יהודה ור' יוסי ורבי שמעון ורבי אלעזר בן שמוע והם הם העמידו תורה אותה שעה תנא כולם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת אמר רב חמא בר אבא ואיתימא ר' חייא בר אבין כולם מתו מיתה רעה מאי היא א"ר נחמן אסכרה

Rabbi Akiva says that the verse should be understood as follows: If one studied Torah in his youth he should study more Torah in his old age; if he had students in his youth he should have additional students in his old age, as it is stated: “In the morning sow your seed, etc.”

They said by way of example that Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students in an area of land that stretched from Gevat to Antipatris in Judea, and they all died in one period of time, because they did not treat each other with respect.

And the world was desolate of Torah until Rabbi Akiva came to our Rabbis in the South and taught his Torah to them. This second group of disciples consisted of Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosei, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. And these are the very ones who upheld the study of Torah at that time. Although Rabbi Akiva’s earlier students did not survive, his later disciples were able to transmit the Torah to future generations.

With regard to the twelve thousand pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s students, the Gemara adds: It is taught that all of them died in the period from Passover until Shavuot. Rav Ḥama bar Abba said, and some say it was Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Avin: They all died a bad death. The Gemara inquires: What is it that is called a bad death? Rav Naḥman said: Diphtheria.

Context: This is from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot, which is about the custom of "yibbum", where a widow marries her brother-in-law in order to have a kid accorded to her husband's name. This text is commenting on a mishnah that says you no longer have to fulfill the commandment of "be fruitful and multiply" if you already have a kid (or possibly a boy and a girl). In this sugya (section), it says that a baraita (text that didn't make it into the Mishnah) says that according to Rabbi Joshua actually you need to keep having kids even after you've had some, and if your wife dies you should marry again and have more into your old age. He supports this with a verse about sowing seeds in the morning and in the evening because you don't know how each of them will turn out. Rabbi Akiba doesn't think that Rabbi Joshua is right (nor does the Gemara); since in the Gemara people have to deal with the evidence presented by those they disagree with, this text expounds Rabbi Akiba's interpretation of the verse Rabbi Joshua cites.

What happens in this text?

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: אַסְכָּרָה בָּאָה לְעוֹלָם עַל הַמַּעֲשֵׂר. רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בְּרַבִּי יוֹסֵי אוֹמֵר: עַל לָשׁוֹן הָרָע.

The Sages taught: Askara (diphtheria) comes to the world as punishment for neglecting to separate food meant for tithes. Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Yosei, says: Askara comes as punishment for slander.

Context: This is from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, which is about Shabbat. This Gemara is commenting on a mishnah which says that failure to light Shabbat candles leads to death in childbirth. The gemara starts off talking about other things which lead to dying while giving birth, then goes on to talk about things that cause children to die (always because the parents did something wrong), and then goes on to talk about other punishments and the things that cause them.

If you were in charge of the world, what punishment would you put in place for spreading stories (lashon Hara)?

אמר להם הראשונים לא מתו אלא מפני שהיתה עיניהם צרה בתורה זה לזה אתם לא תהיו כן מיד עמדו ומלאו כל ארץ ישראל תורה

[Rabbi Akiva said to his new students:] the first students died because their eyes were narrow in the Torah they shared with each other. Do not be like this. They immediately stood up and filled the land of Israel with Torah.

Context: Kohelet Rabbah is a book of midrashic interpretation on the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes (a.k.a. Kohelet). It was written around 800 CE, give or take 100 years. It takes the verse in Kohelet about sowing seeds in the morning (11:6), talks about the Gemara's interpretations of this (Yevamot 62b), and then shares more about the Rabbi Akiba story in the Gemara.

What might it mean when it says "their eyes were narrow in the Torah they shared with each other"?

עץ יוסף, עין יעקב, יבמות סב ב מפני ושם במדרש איתא מפני שהיתה עיניהם צרה אלו לאלו כלומר שהיו שונאים זה לזה ולא היו רוצים לההנות זה לזה בלמוד וכאן פירש שלא נהגו כבוד כו' שלא חש כל אחד מהם על כבוד התורה של חברו דאין כבוד אלא תורה

Etz Yosef on Ein Yaakov Yevamot 62b

And as it is brought in the Midrash (Kohelet Rabbah), "because their eyes were narrow with the Torah they shared with each other." This it to say, that they hated one another, and didn't want to enjoy each other's company in Torah learning, and they weren't respectful with one another, etc., as they were not careful to be respectful of the Torah of their fellow, as there is no such thing as honor except in regards to Torah.

Context: This is from the Etz Yosef on the Ein Yaakov. The Ein Yaakov is a collection of all the "aggadah" (stories) in the Talmud. It was put together by Jacob ibn Habib in the 1500s. The Etz Yosef is a commentary on the parts of the Ein Yaakov which also appear in Midrash Rabba (Midrashic collections on the 5 books of the Torah and the 5 Megillot), focusing on the "p'shat", or surface-level interpretations of the text. It was written by Enoch Zundel ben Joseph in 1845. Because the story of Rabbi Akiba's students is both in the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) and Kohelet Rabba (11:6:1), it is included in the Etz Yosef.

How is this selection of text relevant to our lives today?

Is that what really happened to Rabbi Akiba's students?

יתני ר' שמעון בן יוחי עקיבה ר' היה דורש (במדבר כ״ד:י״ז) דרך כוכב מיעקב דרך כוזבא מיעקב. ר' עקיבה כד הוה חמי בר כוזבה הוה אמר דין הוא מלכא משיחא א"ל ר' יוחנן בן תורתא עקיבה יעלו עשבים בלחייך ועדיין בן דוד לא יבא.

R' Shimon bar Yochai taught: R' Akiva explained the verse "a star (kochav) comes forth from Yaakov" as Kosiba comes forth from Yaakov. When R' Akiva would see Bar Kosiba he would declare 'this is the king messiah!' R' Yochanan ben Torta said to him: Akiva, grass will grow from your cheeks and still the son of David will not have come!

Context: This is from the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Ta'anit, which is about fasting. The mishnah that it is commenting on (Ta'anit 4:6) is a classic Tisha B'Av and Seventeenth of Tammuz text about calamities on those days and therefore the reasons why we fast on those days. One of the things that happened on the 9th of Av is the fall of Beitar, which effectively ended the Bar-Kochba Revolt in 135 CE. This text is part of Rabbi Akiba's thoughts on that subject. Incidentally, the “Seder” in B’nai Brak that we read about in the Haggadah was probably more revolutionary than it seems from a surface read.

Given how Rabbi Akiba felt about Bar-Kochba, and given that the Talmud sometimes speaks cryptically, how might his students have died?

(ט) ומסר ר' עקיבא את עצמו [להריגה] אחר שנפטר ר' יוסי בן קיסמא. ונהרג ר' חנינא בן תרדיון ונתמעטה החכמה [אחריהם]. והעמיד [רבי עקיבא] תלמידים הרבה והוה שמדא על התלמידים של ר' עקיבא ...

R' Akiva gave himself over to execution after R' Yosi ben Kisma died. R' Chanina ben Tradiyon was also killed and wisdom diminished after they passed. R' Akiva raised up many students, but a religious persecution waged against his students...

Context: This is from a responsa written by Rav Sherira Gaon, the head of a Babylonian academy, to a query from a Tunisian community in 986. The question was about how the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud came to be. The response is the first use of a historical lens on the Talmud.

What does Rav Sherira Gaon’s explanation for the demise of Rabbi Akiba’s students support in our understanding of why they might have died?

אמרו על ר' עקיבא ששנים עשר אלף זוגות תלמידים היו לו וכלן מתו בפרק אחד על שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה והיה העולם שמם בלא תורה עד שבא לו אצל רבותינו שבדרום ושנה להם לר' מאיר ור' שמעון ור' יהודה ור' יוסי ור' אלעזר בן שמוע והם הם העמידו את השעה ותלמידים אלו הוזכר כאן שכלם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת וקבלה ביד הגאונים שביום ל"ג בעומר פסקה המיתה ונוהגים מתוך כך שלא להתענות בו וכן נוהגים מתוך כך שלא לישא אשה מפסח עד אותו זמן:

Meiri, Tractate Yevamot 62b

There is a received tradition from the Geonim that on the 33rd day of the Omer, the deaths (of the students of R. Akivah) stopped...and we also have the custom not to get married from Pesach until this time

Context: The Meiri, Rabbi Menahem Meiri, was a Spanish rabbi who lived from 1249-1315. He wrote a commentary on the Talmud. The Geonim were the heads of the Babylonian academies from the 500s to the 1000s. They were the first ones to start interpreting the Babylonian Talmud. Apparently the Geonim had a tradition that the “plague” stopped at “Atzeret”, which they took to mean “16 days before Shavuot”.

Other possible explanations for why Lag BaOmer became a day of celebration include that there was a lull in the fighting during the Bar-Kochba rebellion, or that possibly they captured Jerusalem on this day in 132 CE, or that Rabbi Akiba “ordained” the 5 rabbis on Lag BaOmer, thus ensuring that Jewish tradition would continue to be taught. Additionally, the Byzantine Emperor Julian tried to rebuild the Third Temple, but an earthquake in 363 CE stopped him and that supposedly happened on this day.

Which explanation resonates with you the most?

Isn’t there something about playing with bows and arrows?

וְאַמַּאי קָרוּ לֵיהּ ״רֹאשׁ הַמְדַבְּרִים בְּכָל מָקוֹם״? דְּיָתְבִי רַבִּי יְהוּדָה וְרַבִּי יוֹסֵי וְרַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן, וְיָתֵיב יְהוּדָה בֶּן גֵּרִים גַּבַּיְיהוּ. פָּתַח רַבִּי יְהוּדָה וְאָמַר: כַּמָּה נָאִים מַעֲשֵׂיהֶן שֶׁל אוּמָּה זוֹ: תִּקְּנוּ שְׁווֹקִים, תִּקְּנוּ גְּשָׁרִים, תִּקְנוּ מֶרְחֲצָאוֹת. רַבִּי יוֹסֵי שָׁתַק. נַעֲנָה רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן יוֹחַאי וְאָמַר: כׇּל מַה שֶּׁתִּקְּנוּ, לֹא תִּקְּנוּ אֶלָּא לְצוֹרֶךְ עַצְמָן. תִּקְּנוּ שְׁווֹקִין — לְהוֹשִׁיב בָּהֶן זוֹנוֹת, מֶרְחֲצָאוֹת — לְעַדֵּן בָּהֶן עַצְמָן, גְּשָׁרִים — לִיטּוֹל מֵהֶן מֶכֶס. הָלַךְ יְהוּדָה בֶּן גֵּרִים וְסִיפֵּר דִּבְרֵיהֶם, וְנִשְׁמְעוּ לַמַּלְכוּת. אָמְרוּ: יְהוּדָה שֶׁעִילָּה — יִתְעַלֶּה. יוֹסֵי שֶׁשָּׁתַק — יִגְלֶה לְצִיפּוֹרִי. שִׁמְעוֹן שֶׁגִּינָּה — יֵהָרֵג. אֲזַל הוּא וּבְרֵיהּ, טְשׁוֹ בֵּי מִדְרְשָׁא. כׇּל יוֹמָא הֲוָה מַתְיָא לְהוּ דְּבֵיתְהוּ רִיפְתָּא וְכוּזָא דְמַיָּא וְכָרְכִי. כִּי תְּקֵיף גְּזֵירְתָא אֲמַר לֵיהּ לִבְרֵיהּ: נָשִׁים דַּעְתָּן קַלָּה עֲלֵיהֶן, דִילְמָא מְצַעֲרִי לַהּ וּמְגַלְּיָא לַן. אֲזַלוּ טְשׁוֹ בִּמְעָרְתָּא. אִיתְרְחִישׁ נִיסָּא אִיבְּרִי לְהוּ חָרוּבָא וְעֵינָא דְמַיָּא, וַהֲווֹ מַשְׁלְחִי מָנַיְיהוּ וַהֲווֹ יָתְבִי עַד צַוְּארַיְיהוּ בְּחָלָא. כּוּלֵּי יוֹמָא גָּרְסִי. בְּעִידָּן צַלּוֹיֵי לָבְשִׁי מִיכַּסּוּ וּמְצַלּוּ, וַהֲדַר מַשְׁלְחִי מָנַיְיהוּ כִּי הֵיכִי דְּלָא לִיבְלוּ. אִיתִּיבוּ תְּרֵיסַר שְׁנֵי בִּמְעָרְתָּא. אֲתָא אֵלִיָּהוּ וְקָם אַפִּיתְחָא דִמְעָרְתָּא, אֲמַר: מַאן לוֹדְעֵיהּ לְבַר יוֹחַי דְּמִית קֵיסָר וּבְטִיל גְּזֵירְתֵיהּ. נְפַקוּ, חֲזוֹ אִינָשֵׁי דְּקָא כָּרְבִי וְזָרְעִי, אָמְרִין: מַנִּיחִין חַיֵּי עוֹלָם וְעוֹסְקִין בְּחַיֵּי שָׁעָה. כׇּל מָקוֹם שֶׁנּוֹתְנִין עֵינֵיהֶן מִיָּד נִשְׂרָף. יָצְתָה בַּת קוֹל וְאָמְרָה לָהֶם: לְהַחֲרִיב עוֹלָמִי יְצָאתֶם?! חִיזְרוּ לִמְעָרַתְכֶם! הֲדוּר אֲזוּל אִיתִּיבוּ תְּרֵיסַר יַרְחֵי שַׁתָּא. אָמְרִי: מִשְׁפַּט רְשָׁעִים בְּגֵיהִנָּם שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר חֹדֶשׁ. יָצְתָה בַּת קוֹל וְאָמְרָה: צְאוּ מִמְּעָרַתְכֶם! נְפַקוּ. כָּל הֵיכָא דַּהֲוָה מָחֵי רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר, הֲוָה מַסֵּי רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן. אָמַר לוֹ: בְּנִי, דַּי לָעוֹלָם אֲנִי וְאַתָּה. בַּהֲדֵי פַּנְיָא דְּמַעֲלֵי שַׁבְּתָא חֲזוֹ הָהוּא סָבָא דַּהֲוָה נָקֵיט תְּרֵי מַדָּאנֵי אָסָא וְרָהֵיט בֵּין הַשְּׁמָשׁוֹת. אֲמַרוּ לֵיהּ: הָנֵי לְמָה לָךְ? אֲמַר לְהוּ: לִכְבוֹד שַׁבָּת. וְתִיסְגֵּי לָךְ בְּחַד! — חַד כְּנֶגֶד ״זָכוֹר״ וְחַד כְּנֶגֶד ״שָׁמוֹר״. אֲמַר לֵיהּ לִבְרֵיהּ: חֲזִי כַּמָּה חֲבִיבִין מִצְוֹת עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל. אִיְּתִיבָה דַּעְתַּיְיהוּ.

In this baraita Rabbi Yehuda is described as head of the speakers in every place. The Gemara asks: And why did they call him head of the speakers in every place? The Gemara relates that this resulted due to an incident that took place when Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Shimon were sitting, and Yehuda, son of converts, sat beside them. Rabbi Yehuda opened and said: How pleasant are the actions of this nation, the Romans, as they established marketplaces, established bridges, and established bathhouses. Rabbi Yosei was silent. Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai responded and said: Everything that they established, they established only for their own purposes. They established marketplaces, to place prostitutes in them; bathhouses, to pamper themselves; and bridges, to collect taxes from all who pass over them. Yehuda, son of converts, went and related their statements to his household, and those statements continued to spread until they were heard by the monarchy. They ruled and said: Yehuda, who elevated the Roman regime, shall be elevated and appointed as head of the Sages, the head of the speakers in every place. Yosei, who remained silent, shall be exiled from his home in Judea as punishment, and sent to the city of Tzippori in the Galilee. And Shimon, who denounced the government, shall be killed. Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai and his son, Rabbi Elazar, went and hid in the study hall. Every day Rabbi Shimon’s wife would bring them bread and a jug of water and they would eat. When the decree intensified, Rabbi Shimon said to his son: Women are easily impressionable and, therefore, there is room for concern lest the authorities torture her and she reveal our whereabouts. They went and they hid in a cave. A miracle occurred and a carob tree was created for them as well as a spring of water. They would remove their clothes and sit covered in sand up to their necks. They would study Torah all day in that manner. At the time of prayer, they would dress, cover themselves, and pray, and they would again remove their clothes afterward so that they would not become tattered. They sat in the cave for twelve years. Elijah the Prophet came and stood at the entrance to the cave and said: Who will inform bar Yoḥai that the emperor died and his decree has been abrogated? They emerged from the cave, and saw people who were plowing and sowing. Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai said: These people abandon eternal life of Torah study and engage in temporal life for their own sustenance. The Gemara relates that every place that Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar directed their eyes was immediately burned. A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Did you emerge from the cave in order to destroy My world? Return to your cave. They again went and sat there for twelve months. They said: The judgment of the wicked in Gehenna lasts for twelve months. Surely their sin was atoned in that time. A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Emerge from your cave. They emerged. Everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike, Rabbi Shimon would heal. Rabbi Shimon said to Rabbi Elazar: My son, you and I suffice for the entire world, as the two of us are engaged in the proper study of Torah. As the sun was setting on Shabbat eve, they saw an elderly man who was holding two bundles of myrtle branches and running at twilight. They said to him: Why do you have these? He said to them: In honor of Shabbat. They said to him: And let one suffice. He answered them: One is corresponding to: “Remember the Shabbat day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8), and one is corresponding to: “Observe the Shabbat day, to keep it holy” (Deuteronomy 5:12). Rabbi Shimon said to his son: See how beloved the mitzvot are to Israel. Their minds were put at ease and they were no longer as upset that people were not engaged in Torah study.

Context: This is from the same Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, text that we saw earlier. It is still discussing about punishments for things that you do wrong. Right before this sugya (section), there’s a baraita (teaching that didn’t make it into the Mishnah) about the topic they were discussing, and Rabbi Yehudah was called “the head of speakers”. The Talmud now pauses its discussion to explain why he was called that.

The story concerns Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. He’s one of the 5 students that Rabbi Akiba ordained after his 24,000 students died.

What do you think it was like for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai to leave the social isolation of the cave after so long and go back to the world?

Why do Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son get sent back to the cave?

Tell me more about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai!

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: ״וְאָסַפְתָּ דְגָנֶךָ״ מָה תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר? — לְפִי שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״לֹא יָמוּשׁ סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה מִפִּיךָ״ — יָכוֹל דְּבָרִים כִּכְתָבָן, תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר: ״וְאָסַפְתָּ דְגָנֶךָ״ — הַנְהֵג בָּהֶן מִנְהַג דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, דִּבְרֵי רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל. רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן יוֹחַאי אוֹמֵר: אֶפְשָׁר אָדָם חוֹרֵשׁ בִּשְׁעַת חֲרִישָׁה, וְזוֹרֵעַ בִּשְׁעַת זְרִיעָה, וְקוֹצֵר בִּשְׁעַת קְצִירָה, וְדָשׁ בִּשְׁעַת דִּישָׁה, וְזוֹרֶה בִּשְׁעַת הָרוּחַ, תּוֹרָה מַה תְּהֵא עָלֶיהָ? אֶלָּא בִּזְמַן שֶׁיִּשְׂרָאֵל עוֹשִׂין רְצוֹנוֹ שֶׁל מָקוֹם — מְלַאכְתָּן נַעֲשֵׂית עַל יְדֵי אֲחֵרִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וְעָמְדוּ זָרִים וְרָעוּ צֹאנְכֶם וְגוֹ׳״, וּבִזְמַן שֶׁאֵין יִשְׂרָאֵל עוֹשִׂין רְצוֹנוֹ שֶׁל מָקוֹם — מְלַאכְתָּן נַעֲשֵׂית עַל יְדֵי עַצְמָן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וְאָסַפְתָּ דְגָנֶךָ״. וְלֹא עוֹד אֶלָּא שֶׁמְּלֶאכֶת אֲחֵרִים נַעֲשֵׂית עַל יָדָן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וְעָבַדְתָּ אֶת אוֹיְבֶךָ וְגוֹ׳״. אָמַר אַבָּיֵי: הַרְבֵּה עָשׂוּ כְּרַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל, וְעָלְתָה בְּיָדָן. כְּרַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן יוֹחַי, וְלֹא עָלְתָה בְּיָדָן.
The Sages taught: What is the meaning of that which the verse states: “And you shall gather your grain”? Because it is stated: “This Torah shall not depart from your mouths, and you shall contemplate in it day and night” (Joshua 1:8), I might have thought that these matters are to be understood as they are written; one is to literally spend his days immersed exclusively in Torah study. Therefore, the verse states: “And you shall gather your grain, your wine and your oil,” assume in their regard, the way of the world; set aside time not only for Torah, but also for work. This is the statement of Rabbi Yishmael. Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai says: Is it possible that a person plows in the plowing season and sows in the sowing season and harvests in the harvest season and threshes in the threshing season and winnows in the windy season, as grain is separated from the chaff by means of the wind, and is constantly busy; what will become of Torah? Rather, one must dedicate himself exclusively to Torah at the expense of other endeavors; as when Israel performs God’s will, their work is performed by others, as it is stated: “And strangers will stand and feed your flocks, and foreigners will be your plowmen and your vinedressers” (Isaiah 61:5). When Israel does not perform God’s will, their work is performed by them themselves, as it is stated: “And you shall gather your grain.” Moreover, if Israel fails to perform God’s will, others’ work will be performed by them, as it is stated: “You shall serve your enemy whom God shall send against you, in hunger, in thirst, in nakedness and in want of all things” (Deuteronomy 28:48). Summing up this dispute, Abaye said: Although there is room for both opinions, many have acted in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael, and combined working for a living and learning Torah, and although they engaged in activities other than the study of Torah, were successful in their Torah study. Many have acted in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai and were not successful in their Torah study. They were ultimately forced to abandon their Torah study altogether.

Context: This is from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, which is about blessings. This Gemara is commenting on a mishnah which lays out the different blessings for types of food. In the Gemara, Rav Hanina bar Papa says that if you eat without saying a blessing, it’s like you stole from G-d. He then cites a verse to prove that. The Gemara then talks about other verses that this rabbi explained, and that’s how we end up here.

Lag BaOmer has a tension to it. On the one hand, it’s about the Omer, for which you have to work the land. You also can “do Jewish” when you’re in the world. On the other hand, it’s (in some way) about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who was all about not working the land and just studying Torah. How do you grapple with these two models in your life?

(Kippa tip to Sara Wolkenfeld)

Was there any more to the story of the laser-eyed rabbi?

אֲמַר: הוֹאִיל וְאִיתְרְחִישׁ נִיסָּא אֵיזִיל אַתְקֵין מִילְּתָא. דִּכְתִיב: ״וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם״, וְאָמַר רַב: שָׁלֵם בְּגוּפוֹ, שָׁלֵם בְּמָמוֹנוֹ, שָׁלֵם בְּתוֹרָתוֹ. ״וַיִּחַן אֶת פְּנֵי הָעִיר״, אָמַר רַב: מַטְבֵּעַ תִּיקֵּן לָהֶם, וּשְׁמוּאֵל אָמַר: שְׁווֹקִים תִּיקֵּן לָהֶם, וְרַבִּי יוֹחָנָן אָמַר: מֶרְחֲצָאוֹת תִּיקֵּן לָהֶם. אֲמַר: אִיכָּא מִילְּתָא דְּבָעֵי לְתַקּוֹנֵי? אֲמַרוּ לֵיהּ: אִיכָּא דּוּכְתָּא דְּאִית בֵּיהּ סְפֵק טוּמְאָה וְאִית לְהוּ צַעֲרָא לְכֹהֲנִים לְאַקּוֹפֵי. אֲמַר: אִיכָּא אִינִישׁ דְּיָדַע דְּאִיתַּחְזַק הָכָא טָהֳרָה? אֲמַר לֵיהּ הָהוּא סָבָא: כָּאן קִיצֵּץ בֶּן זַכַּאי תּוּרְמְסֵי תְּרוּמָה. עֲבַד אִיהוּ נָמֵי הָכִי, כָּל הֵיכָא דַּהֲוָה קְשֵׁי — טַהֲרֵיהּ, וְכָל הֵיכָא דַּהֲוָה רְפֵי — צַיְּינֵיהּ. אֲמַר הָהוּא סָבָא: טִיהֵר בֶּן יוֹחַי בֵּית הַקְּבָרוֹת! אֲמַר לֵיהּ: אִילְמָלֵי לֹא הָיִיתָ עִמָּנוּ, וַאֲפִילּוּ הָיִיתָ עִמָּנוּ, וְלֹא נִמְנֵיתָ עִמָּנוּ — יָפֶה אַתָּה אוֹמֵר. עַכְשָׁיו שֶׁהָיִיתָ עִמָּנוּ, וְנִמְנֵיתָ עִמָּנוּ, יֹאמְרוּ: זוֹנוֹת מְפַרְכְּסוֹת זוֹ אֶת זוֹ, תַּלְמִידֵי חֲכָמִים לֹא כָּל שֶׁכֵּן?! יְהַב בֵּיהּ עֵינֵיהּ וְנָח נַפְשֵׁיהּ. נְפַק לְשׁוּקָא חַזְיֵיהּ לִיהוּדָה בֶּן גֵּרִים. אֲמַר: עֲדַיִין יֵשׁ לְזֶה בָּעוֹלָם? נָתַן בּוֹ עֵינָיו וְעָשָׂהוּ גַּל שֶׁל עֲצָמוֹת.
Rabbi Shimon said: Since a miracle transpired for me, I will go and repair something for the sake of others in gratitude for God’s kindness, as it is written: “And Jacob came whole to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan-aram; and he graced the countenance of the city” (Genesis 33:18). Rav said, the meaning of: And Jacob came whole, is: Whole in his body, whole in his money, whole in his Torah. And what did he do? And he graced the countenance of the city; he performed gracious acts to benefit the city. Rav said: Jacob established a currency for them. And Shmuel said: He established marketplaces for them. And Rabbi Yoḥanan said: He established bathhouses for them. In any event, clearly one for whom a miracle transpires should perform an act of kindness for his neighbors as a sign of gratitude. He said: Is there something that needs repair? They said to him: There is a place where there is uncertainty with regard to ritual impurity and the priests are troubled by being forced to circumvent it, as it is prohibited for them to become ritually impure from contact with a corpse. There was suspicion, but no certainty, that a corpse was buried there. Therefore, they were unable to definitively determine its status. Rabbi Shimon said: Is there a person who knows that there was a presumption of ritual purity here? Is there anyone who remembers a time when this place was not considered ritually impure, or that at least part of it was considered to be ritually pure? An Elder said to him: Here ben Zakkai planted and cut the teruma of lupines. In this marketplace Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai, who himself was a priest, once planted lupines that were given to him as teruma. On that basis, the conclusion can be drawn that it was definitely ritually pure. Rabbi Shimon, like Jacob, also did so and took steps to improve the city and examined the ground (Tosafot). Everywhere that the ground was hard, he pronounced it ritually pure as there was certainly no corpse there, and every place that the ground was soft, he marked it indicating that perhaps a corpse was buried there. In that way, he purified the marketplace so that even priests could walk through it. A certain Elder said in ridicule and surprise: Ben Yoḥai purified the cemetery. Rabbi Shimon got angry and said to him: Had you not been with us, and even had you been with us and were not counted with us in rendering this ruling, what you say is fine. You could have said that you were unaware of my intention or that you did not agree or participate in this decision. Now that you were with us and were counted with us in rendering this ruling, you will cause people to say that Sages are unwilling to cooperate with one another. They will say: If competing prostitutes still apply makeup to each other to help one another look beautiful, all the more so that Torah scholars should cooperate with each other. He directed his eyes toward him and the Elder died. Rabbi Shimon went out to the marketplace and he saw Yehuda, son of converts,who was the cause of this entire incident. Rabbi Shimon, said: This one still has a place in the world? He directed his eyes toward him and turned him into a pile of bones.

Context: This is the rest of the story that we read a minute ago.

Thoughts?

But what does Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai have to do with Lag BaOmer?

Zohar Idra Zuta Devarim, Haazinu; Death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai:

On the day that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was to leave this world he arranged his affairs. His friends came to his room and he said to them “now is a time of favour. I can now reveal to you holy things that haven’t been revealed until now”…. All that day the fire never left the room, and there was nobody who was able to approach because it was impossible. The light and the fire were surrounding him.

אָתוּ טְרִיקִין, וּמָארֵי תְּרִיסִין דִּכְפַר צִפֳּרִי וְטַרְדָאן בְּהוּ (ס''א דצפרי וטרדיא והוו) בְּנֵי מְרוֹנְיָא, צַוְוחִין בִּקְטִירִין, דְּחָשִׁיבוּ דְּלָא יִתְקְבַּר תַּמָּן. בָּתַר דְּנָפַק פּוּרְיָיא, הֲוָה סָלִיק בַּאֲוִירָא. וְאֶשָּׁא הֲוָה לָהִיט קַמֵּיהּ, שָׁמְעוּ קָלָא, עוּלוּ וְאָתוּ, וְאִתְכְּנָשׁוּ לְהִילּוּלָא דְּרִבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן.

Truculent stingers and shield-bearing warriors from Sepphoris came and beset them. The people of Meron banded together and shouted, for they feared he would not be buried there. After the bed emerged from the house, it rose into the air; fire blazed before it. They heard a voice: “Come and gather! Assemble for the celebration of Rabbi Shim'on!"

Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment, Translated by Daniel Matt, p. 188

Context: These are from the Zohar, a mystical book written by Moses de Leon in the 1200s in Spain. He attributed it to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, which according to his widow he did so people would buy more copies. The Zohar has a mystical commentary on each parasha and then a coda that talks about Rabbi Shimon’s death in the town of Meron. Supposedly he revealed the Zohar on the day that he was going to die, and some say that the daylight didn’t end until he was done.

If you wanted to design part of Lag BaOmer around these texts, what would you have people do?

Context: This is Shimon bar Yochai’s grave on Mt. Meron in Northern Israel, where people light bonfires throughout the night on his yahrtzeit (anniversary of his death) - The 18th of Iyar, which is Lag BaOmer. Three-year-old boys sometimes get their first haircut here if they turn three after Passover starts.

But what about the bows and arrows?

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹקִ֗ים זֹ֤את אֽוֹת־הַבְּרִית֙ אֲשֶׁר־אֲנִ֣י נֹתֵ֗ן בֵּינִי֙ וּבֵ֣ינֵיכֶ֔ם וּבֵ֛ין כָּל־נֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֑ם לְדֹרֹ֖ת עוֹלָֽם׃
God further said, “This is the sign that I set for the covenant between Me and you, and every living creature with you, for all ages to come.

Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Genesis, from the story of Noah’s Ark. After the flood, G-d put a rainbow in the sky as a promise not to flood the entire earth again.

לדרת עולם. נִכְתַּב חָסֵר, שֶׁיֵּשׁ דּוֹרוֹת שֶׁלֹּא הֻצְרְכוּ לְאוֹת לְפִי שֶׁצַּדִּיקִים גְּמוּרִים הָיוּ, כְּמוֹ דּוֹרוֹ שֶׁל חִזְקִיָּהוּ מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה וְדוֹרוֹ שֶׁל רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן יוֹחַאי (ב"ר):

לדרת עולם FOR GENERATIONS FOR EVER — The word לדרת “for generations” is written missing a letter vav (implying that the sign will be necessary only for such generations as are “missing’’ in faith) because there will be some generations which will require no sign since they were completely righteous, such as the generation of Hezekiah, king of Judah, and the generation of R. Simeon ben Yochai.

Context: Rashi is an acronym for Rabbi Shimon Ben Yitzchak. He was a French winemaker who lived from 1040-1105. When he wasn’t making wine, he wrote a commentary on the Tanach and the Talmud.

רבי חזקיה בשם רבי ירמיה כל ימיו של רבי שמעון בן יוחאי לא נראתה הקשת בענן.

Rabbi Chizkiyah said in the name of Rabbi Yirmiyah: During the lifetime of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a rainbow was never seen in the clouds.

Context: This is from the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Brachot, which is about blessings. Right before this the Gemara is talking about the appropriate blessing to say for things including rainbows, and that leads to our text. The Jerusalem Talmud was finished (around 400 CE) about 250 years after Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai lived. Rashi lived 600ish years after the Jerusalem Talmud was finished, so he was familiar with it’s commentary.

פני משה לירושלמי שם

הי' זכותו מגין על הדור ולא הי' צריך להראות הקשת בענן

Pnei Moshe on Yerushalmi

Rabbi Shimon's merit protected the generation, and there was no need for a rainbow.

Context: If Rashi provided the most useful commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, the P’nei Moshe, Rabbi Moses ben Simeon Margoliot from the 1700s, provided the most useful commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud.

מנהג ישראל אשר התלמידים בני בי רב יורו בקשת ביום הזה והנה שמעתי מאת כבוד אדומ"ו ברב הקדוש מהרמ"מ זצוק"ל הטעם הוא כי בימי ר' שמעון לא נראתה הקשת. והנה ביום עלותו למרום עושין הסימן בזה עכ"ד. והוא כעין ללמד בני יהודא קשת. ונ"ל ע"ד דברי אדמ"ו דהנה אמר רשב"י לר"א ברי' (בזהר) ברי לא יתצפי לרגלי דמשיחא עד דתתחזי קשתא בגוונין נהורין. הוא סימן התגלות אור של מלך המשיח. אשר יגלה האור בי טוב הגנוז. הנה ביום הזה אשר נכתב הס' הקדוש הזהר שהוא מהארת האור כי טוב הגנוז. מפי ביצינא קדישא. וזה מאיר לנו בגלות עד יתגלה בזכות זה משיח צדקינו יהי אור זה אור"ו של מלך המשיח והסי' מסור בידינו בשעתא דתתחזי קשתא בגוונין נהורין. ע"כ ביום זה לסימן הטוב הלזה ויורו המורים בקשת:

One particular custom practiced on the day of Lag B'Omer is unique: Children go to parks and fields to play with bows and arrows. What is the reason for this peculiar custom? One well-known explanation has to do with the fact that during Rabbi Shimon's lifetime, no rainbow ever appeared in the sky. This is profoundly significant, because Genesis relates that the rainbow represented G-d's covenant never to destroy the world again even if the human race would degenerate to its status prior to the Flood. But as long as Rabbi Shimon was alive, his merit and piety alone were enough to ensure that G-d would not regret His creation, with no need for the rainbow. On the day of Rabbi Shimon's passing, however, the world was in need of the rainbow. Thus, each year on that day we recall this man's greatness by playing with the bow.

Context: “B’nai Yissachar” was written by Rabbi Tzvi Elimech Spira around 1830. It’s organized by month of the year, and it talks about mystical aspects of Shabbat and the other Jewish holidays.

Other explanations for shooting bows and arrows on Lag BaOmer include:

1. When the Romans forbade the Jews from teaching Torah (for which Rabbi Akiba was eventually killed, along with at least 9 other rabbis), the Jews would teach Torah in the forest. If soldiers came along, they would hide the books and pretend to be shooting bows and arrows.

2. A reminder of the Bar-Kochba rebellion - the last time Jews had sovereignty in the Land of Israel from 135 CE until 1948 CE.

Which explanation resonates with you the most?

Do you have to get a haircut on Lag BaOmer?

(ה) וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֤ם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי֙ וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֨ר יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה אֹתָ֛ם הָאָדָ֖ם וָחַ֣י בָּהֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י ה' (ס)

(5) You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am the LORD.

Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Leviticus, where it says that we should not follow the practices of the Egyptians or Canaanites.

What does this have to do with getting a haircut on Lag BaOmer?

א"ר יוחנן משום ר"ש בן יהוצדק נימנו וגמרו בעליית בית נתזה בלוד כל עבירות שבתורה אם אומרין לאדם עבור ואל תהרג יעבור ואל יהרג חוץ מעבודת כוכבים וגילוי עריות ושפיכות דמים
§ The Gemara now considers which prohibitions are permitted in times of mortal danger. Rabbi Yoḥanan says in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak: The Sages who discussed this issue counted the votes of those assembled and concluded in the upper story of the house of Nitza in the city of Lod: With regard to all other transgressions in the Torah, if a person is told: Transgress this prohibition and you will not be killed, he may transgress that prohibition and not be killed, because the preserving of his own life overrides all of the Torah’s prohibitions. This is the halakha concerning all prohibitions except for those of idol worship, forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed. Concerning those prohibitions, one must allow himself to be killed rather than transgress them.

Context: This is from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, which is about justice. This piece of Gemara is commenting on a mishnah which says that you can kill somebody when they are trying to break the law by killing or raping you, but you can’t kill somebody when they are trying to break the law by breaking Shabbat. Rather, you should tell them not to do it, and if they still break Shabbat then you should punish them. This text is the source for the idea of Pikuach Nefesh, saving a soul, that you can break any rule in Judaism to save a life (except for the three mentioned in the text), and the Talmud goes on to base it on Leviticus 18:5..

What does this have to do with getting a haircut on Lag BaOmer?

With thanks to: Benjamin Adler, Dovid Birk, Rena Ableman, Eliana Willis, Rabbi Claude Vecht-Wolf, Rabbi Andrew Pepperstone, Sara Wolkenfeld, Joseph Ravitsky, David Schlusselberg, Shaul Wertheimer, Sefaria Education, Sarah Zollman, Aaron Klein, Wikipedia, and Rabbi Nate Crane.