Lag BaOmer means “Thirty Three In The Sheaf”, a reference to the sheaf of wheat which is associated with the period between Pesach and Shvuot in Jewish tradition. This period is supposed to consist of seven times seven weeks, or 49 days in all, and Lag BaOmer is the 33rd day in this sequence. It is the one day during the period of the Omer when weddings and other joyous festivities are permitted to be celebrated. The period of the Omer was traditionally viewed as a time of tension and anxiety, originally because of concern about the growth of the spring crop. Shvuot, the “Festival of Weeks”, was also known as the “Festival of First Fruits”, and the harvest of the first fruits of the spring crop at this time was seen as symbolically bringing the Omer period of anxiety to an end. However, there is no mention of Lag BaOmer in Tanach, and it does not appear that this holiday was celebrated in ancient times. It is first mentioned in the Talmud, in connection with certain stories about rabbi Akiva.
The gist of these stories is that rabbi Akiva’s pupils were struck by a plague during the period of the Omer, and for this reason this period was to be observed as a time of mourning, during which festivities could not be held. Yehuda Liebes discusses this custom in his illuminating book, Studies in the Zohar. He refers to Lag BaOmer in this context, noting on page 40 that “tradition holds it to be the day on which death ceased striking down R. Akiba’s pupils, and so also that on which his new disciples were ordained.” He adds:
The tradition about Lag Ba-‘Omer is cited, moreover, as a source for the ruling that the mourning customs practiced during the Omer period in memory of the deaths of R. Akiva’s disciples be stopped on that day.
Liebes and others believe that the references to a “plague” killing rabbi Akiva’s students were actually cryptic allusions to the massacres carried out by the Romans during the “second Jewish War”. This war was initiated by Hadrian’s ban on Judaism, and the Romans therefore made a point of attacking Torah students during it, killing some by wrapping them in their Torah scrolls and setting them on fire. The period of the Omer, which was already defined as a period of anxiety in Jewish tradition, was then adopted by the authors of the Talmud as an appropriate time to mourn the victims of the Roman onslaught. However they made an exception for Lag BaOmer, suggesting that they viewed it as a day on which the Roman attack was somehow temporarily halted.
In later centuries, Lag BaOmer also came to be associated with rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a contemporary of Akiva. Liebes discusses this association, which he attributes to an early Kabbalistic belief that the “Idra Rabba”, or session of the Sanhedrin supposedly convoked by Shimon bar Yochai, was held on Lag BaOmer. However, in later centuries a tradition developed among Kabbalists that Shimon bar Yochai had died on Lag BaOmer. Starting perhaps in the 16th century, Kabbalists living in the land of Israel began to congregate on Lag BaOmer at the tomb of Shimon bar Yochai in the village of Meron in Galilee. A practice developed of lighting huge bonfires on this occasion and treating it as an opportunity to proclaim the virtues of Shimon bar Yochai. This practice has continued to this day, and each year tens of thousands of Hasidim gather at Meron on Lag BaOmer to commemorate what they view as the anniversary of the death of Shimon bar Yochai. They do not, however, treat this day as an occasion for mourning, but rather celebrate it and continue the tradition which started in Talmudic times of holding weddings on Lag BaOmer.
Shimon bar Yochai was an actual historical figure who joined with Akiva in supporting the revolt led by Simon bar Kochba. After the defeat of the revolt, Shimon bar Yochai supposedly hid from the Romans for 13 years in a cave near Meron until it was safe to come out. He was not an especially prominent figure in his own lifetime, but he was remembered in rabbinical tradition because he had escaped from the Romans. A 13th century Spanish Kabbalist named Moses de Leon then made him the hero of the “Zohar”, a lengthy fictitious account of conversations between Shimon bar Yochai and his disciples concerning the esoteric meaning of the Torah. The “Zohar” was accepted as genuine in rabbinical circles because it was written in Aramaic, and it came to be considered as the great classic of Kabbalah, on a par with the Torah and Talmud as an authoritative expression of orthodox Jewish thought. And since Shimon bar Yochai was the hero of the “Zohar”, he came to eclipse Akiva in the eyes of the Kabbalists as the supreme example of a rabbi who upheld Jewish tradition and defied the Romans in the time of the “Jewish Wars”. It was clearly for this reason that he eventually replaced Akiva as the central character in the celebration of Lag BaOmer. The various pretexts which were given for associating him with this holiday were all more or less imaginary, but they were accepted because behind them stood the actual fact that he had evaded Roman persecution.
Liebes, on page 39 of Studies in the Zohar, argues that behind the figure of Shimon bar Yochai in the “Zohar” also stood the figure of Simon bar Kochba. He states:
Furthermore, it could be that the Zohar‘s author associated Bar-Kokhba’s first name, Simeon, with that of his hero and consequently endowed Bar Yohai with some of Bar-Kokhba’s characteristics. To be sure, R. Simeon and his companions in the Zohar were not warriors like Bar-Kokhba and his men, but their association with the latter may well have been among the reasons for the metaphorical description of the participants at the Idra bearing weapons and decked in armor.
The founders of the state of Israel came to a similar conclusion. Rahel Yanait Ben-Zvi, a member of Ben-Gurion’s inner circle, describes in her memoirs, Coming Home, the fascination which they all felt with the memory of Bar Kochba. She states on page 128 that she wrote a pamphlet about Bar Kochba around 1908 and distributed it on Lag BaOmer, “the festival connected with Bar-Kochba”. Due in large part to the influence of Ben-Gurion and his circle, Lag BaOmer has come to be regarded in Israel as a celebration of the accomplishments of Simon bar Kochba. The custom of lighting bonfires was appropriated from the Kabbalists and Hasidim but transferred to the open countryside in memory of the guerilla war which Bar Kochba and his followers had fought. The modern Israeli tradition of celebrating Lag BaOmer in the open countryside is also a continuation of a Jewish folk custom from Eastern Europe, where boys on Lag BaOmer would go into the woods and play with bows and arrows.
It is very possible that all of the diverse traditions relating to Lag BaOmer are ultimately derived from an actual historic event, the liberation of Jerusalem from the Romans by the forces of Simon bar Kochba. Coins issued by Bar Kochba’s government commemorated the liberation of Jerusalem, and this may well have taken place on the 18th of Iyar, the date on which Lag BaOmer always falls on the Jewish calendar. After the defeat of Bar Kochba and his subsequent denigration as a “false Messiah” in the Talmud, it became politically impossible to celebrate the 18th of Iyar as a victory of Bar Kochba, yet the rabbis wished to preserve its memory all the same. Connecting Lag BaOmer first with Akiva and then with Shimon bar Yochai was an effective way of doing this. Bar Kochba himself was concealed from view, yet inasmuch as both Akiva and Bar Yochai had been associated with him and supported him, celebrating Lag BaOmer in their name also kept alive in a hidden form the memory of what must have been regarded at the time as his greatest accomplishment, the restoration, however brief, of Jewish rule in Jerusalem. And in general, the tremendous prestige of both Akiva and Shimon bar Yochai in rabbinical tradition would seem to be due in large part to their association with Bar Kochba. Neither one was actually responsible for any great innovations in Jewish law or philosophy, but they became role models for later generations of rabbis because they had proven their dedication to Jewish freedom and independence by their support for the revolt led by Bar Kochba. It was too dangerous to say this openly, however, and therefore they were credited with a whole set of fictional accomplishments instead – Akiva with ascent to heaven in a chariot, Bar Yochai with the mystical theories of the “Zohar”..