An Introduction to Lag b’Omer

The thirty-third day of the Omer, is a festival known by the phonetic sound of the number thirty-three in Hebrew, Lag b’Omer. Bonfires are lit and ecstatic dancing and mystical studies are undertaken in honor of the memory of the luminary of Jewish mysticism, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, known by the acronym Rashbi.

Rashbi is recorded as having died on day of the thirty-third day of the Omer after telling the secrets of his mystical practices. He is traditionally considered to be the author of the primary Jewish mystical text, the Zohar, which means radiance. And that very text says that Rabbi Shimom and his home were filled with a dramatic radiance while he shared his final secrets on the day of his death. The many teachings we have in his name shed light to this day on practices which support a core tenet of Judaism: our capacity to evolve as people; which is why special customs for children and families also prevail on this day including:

* Bonfire sculptures. In Israel and increasingly in other parts of the world, children collect wood for bonfires in anticipation of the festival and pile the wood high into interesting sculptures throughout the country.

* Bonfire parties of many types. Family barbecues to ecstatic study fireside gatherings blaze with intensity across the land of Israel and around the world, with the largest on Mt. Meron in Sefat at the site of the grave Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and his son Rabbi Eleazar’s graves.

* Pretend hunting bows and arrows for children. Our folklore tells that Rabbi Akiva and his students, when confronted by a Roman law against Torah study at penalty of death, would dress up for hunting and head into the forest to study. So some give children tiny bow and arrow sets with suction cups along with recounting this tale of the courage it sometimes takes to study Torah.

* Upsherin. Thousands of parents bring their three year olds for a first haircut (upsherin, upshirin) to Mt. Meron or the grave of other mystical sages on Lag b’Omer. This practice has fascinating roots and is of both practical and spiritual importance.

What a curious time to select for first haircuts for pre-schoolers! And the reason is quite inspiring and requires us to look into a story found in the Talmud Tractate Shabbat 33b, which reveals how even the great Rabbi Shimon once had to be given a massive time-out for using his the power of his spirit wrongly.

Our story takes place at the time when the Romans had made the study of Torah illegal. Rabbi Shimon spoke out publicly against this injustice and so was sentenced to death. By various clever means he was able to get to a cave in northern Israel and to hide there with his son for twelve years. They occupied themselves all that time with Torah study. In this cave a carob tree appears which served as a food, and a stream, for water, and sand and a mud pit the story says, for warmth, because they needed not to wear out their clothes so they would have them for when they would be free to leave.

When the prevailing Caesar died, the degree against Rabbi Shimon was lifted and so he and his son soon left the cave. They came upon farmers working in a field. Rabbi Shimon was so unaccustomed to the real world and the ideas of Jews who were not occupied in Torah study the he vaporized the Jewish farmers with his gaze. A voice from heaven immediately called out: “My world is not to be destroyed. Return to your cave!”

There-in father and son stayed yet another year until the voice returned allowing them to emerge. They do so on a Friday afternoon, where people were, of course, engaged in mundane activities. When a man hurried past bearing two bunches of myrtle blossoms they inquired as to where he was going with the flowers. “For the honor of Shabbat,” he replied. “But why two?” They asked. “One for shamor (observing the laws of Shabbat) and one for zahor (remembering the beautiful experience of the gift of Shabbat) was the man’s response.

Rabbi Shimon’s final rejoinder is to say: "Now I can see the power of a Jew and mitzvot.” Notice how differently Rabbi Shimon handled this second encounter. He had learned to be curious, to realize he was coming out of a different developmental place than others, to drop the judgment, to realize that there is more to holiness than extreme adherence to one aspect of the law. Shamor and zahor, observing and remembering, structure with meaning, balance is required.

This story of Rabbi Shimon can be read as a parable about maturation, and parenting, including a cameo episode of Cosmic Parenting. Rabbi Shimon must learn to balance strictness with spirit, shamor with zahor. Boundaries that are healthy are applied with conscious compassion, not deadening rage. Many metaphors can be found in this story that are really port holes to a higher parenting consciousness. Let’s look at a few:

A person is often likened to a tree in the Torah, for example: "A person is like the tree of a field..." (Deut. 20:19) and "He will be like a tree planted near water..." (Jeremiah 17:8). Hence the carob tree in our parable. Jewish law requires that baby trees be allowed to develop for three years before their any fruit is harvested from their limbs, this concept is called orlah (Leviticus 19:23). Just as a young tree needs developmental freedom, so too, we try to create safe space for babies to playfully develop with few limits other than those needed for safety. And let’s not forget that time of the “terrible two’s,” when a baby is able to move about but really able to learn and retain effective social behavior. Three usually comes as a breath of relief, it is a stage of major life cycle transition in term of cognitive ability, from a toddler at home into a young child often about to attend pre-school.

In our parable, a stream comes up beside the carob tree. Torah is often compared to water, "May my teaching drop like the rain" (Deut. 32:2). And also sand and mud and darkness, cut off from the activities of daily living, Rabbi Shimon and his son are like babies in a womb, and regress in their studies without light of day and the demands of daily living, like grounding in the holy work of farming and food production. This story is often used in traditional communities to state the case for importance of balancing Torah study with remunerative and charitable work in the world.

Another reference in Torah to orlah is about the form of pruning known as circumcision, a physical reminder of the importance of attached in Judaism to maintaining healthy sexual boundaries and activity and to be better able to fulfill our ethical covenant forged at Sinai through dedication learning for living through Torah study. And, perhaps this orlah particular reference reveals one reason why, until very recently, upshirin was exclusively a ritual for male children.

This tale is wonderful material to study in preparing for an upsherin, (also spelled upshirin) and if you do you will find it is filled with many more powerful parenting metaphors and principles.