Monday, May 15, 2006

Lag BaOmer - One Big Mistake?



A few weeks back DovBear discussed why we mourn during the sefira period (and why the currently espoused reasons may not be historically accurate). He then mentioned that the entire idea of medurot (bonfires) on Lag BaOmer is based on pagan customs. I think that the medurot idea could have come from the method of notifying the Jewish people in Galut of the arrival of the new Jewish Month (pre-SMS and internet).

However, there was a fascinating article in this past Shabbat's Makor Rishon newspaper saying that the entire idea of partying on Lag BaOmer is based on... a typo.

The Talmudic Researcher Rav Avraham Kosman arrives at the conclusion that not only is the entire Lag BaOmer festival -- of bonfires, going to Meiron, commemerating the death of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai -- a big mistaken, but that the idea of a Hilula (celebration) to commemerate the death of tzaddikim is mistaken.

I'll translate the main highlights of the article (from the Hebrew)

In year 363 of the common era, a terrible earthquake rocked Eretz Yisrael causing tremendous damage to Yerushalayim and loss of life....it occurred on Lag BaOmer. As a result, Lag BaOmer became a day of fasting and prayer.

There is no Mishnaic or Talmudic reference to Lag BaOmer, except that the students of Rabbi Akiva died in a plague between Pesach and Shavuot since they didn't act kindly to each other. Many accept that it's unlikely that Rabbi Akiva actually had 24,000 students learning in his yeshiva (Lakewood today has how many? 3000?) and this was a reference to Bar Kochba's soldiers rebelling against Rome. To keep all references to Jewish rebellion to a minimum, the Gemara referred to these soldiers as "students of Rabbi Akiva."

Rabbi Eliezer HaKalir wrote a kina (lament) for Lag BaOmer, also attributed as the yahrtzeit of Yehoshua Bin Nun. Fragments from the Cairo Geniza recollect the fast of Lag BaOmer commemerating the Yehoshua's yahrtzeit and "The Earthquake" (from year 363).

So...when did Lag BaOmer appear on the scene as a day when the mourning laws of sefira stop? When and why did it make the change from a day of fasting and mourning to a day of bonfires, weddings and merriment?

The Ari, (R' Yitzchak Luria) went to the grave of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai (on Har Meiron in the Galil) during the days of the month of Iyar. He also went to the graves of Hilell and Shammai (also in the Galil) and prayed there as well...and somehow the idea that commemerating the yahrtzeit of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai became connected to Lag BaOmer.

The original prayers of the Ari were to beseech for a good year of wealth, and slowly the idea of commemerating a yahrtzeit went from a solemn day to one of a "hilula" (the way sephardrim and chassidim commemerate a yahrtzeit...with food, drink, and more...)

Now, the Ari didn't write any of his books. They were all written by his student Rav Chaim Vital, and he had a monopoly on the Ari's teachings. For 15 years, he refused to allow anyone to read his books and writings about the Ari.

Till one day...Rav Vital fell very ill. A wealthy person bribed Rav Vital's brother with 50 gold coins -- and hired 100 scribes to complete the mammoth task of copying all of Rav Vital's manuscripts relating to the Ari...in 3 days!

Soon, all of the illegally copied manuscripts were published and available to all...yet in the haste to copy everything in 3 days, the following error occurred (according to Rav Kosman).

In the original, hand written document of Rav Vital, it says the Lag BaOmer was "יום שמחת רשב"י" -- the day of happiness of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai (for being saved from the "plague - or Romans). The scribe copied it down as the abbreviated יום שמ' רשב"י" which further was modified by the publishers to יום שמת רשב"י", the day Rav Shimon Bar Yochai died.

Rav Shimon Bar Yochai was saved on Lag BaOmer from the "plague" (meaning he wasn't killed that day), but there isn't any historical record that he died on Lag BaOmer.

Let' add the following:

The Chatam Sofer asked, critical about Lag BaOmer: (and that's even with the Chatam Sofer accepting that Rav Shimon Bar Yochai died on Lag BaOmer!)

"Since when is it that the day a tzaddik dies is a holiday?"

"How can there be a holiday for a day when no miracle occurred and isn't mentioned in the Mishna, Talmud, or any hint at all in the Tanach?"

So...why do we do this all on Lag BaOmer?

If it's a good excuse for bonfire, who am I to challenge tradition...

Please note: everything I wrote is from the article I linked to in Hebrew. I suggest you read through it yourself if you can - many more interesting historical tidbits.


Wherever I am, my blog turns towards Eretz Yisrael

25 comments:

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

I don't think it really comes as news to anyone that there is no ancient tradition that R. Shimon ben Yohai died on the 33rd day of the Omer.

That said, I'm not sure his interpretation of their being a textual error is necessarily correct, since its possible that "יום שמחת רשבי" did originally refer to his yahrzeit. There is the not-unknown phenomenon of lashon sagi nahor. A good article on the topic is "Some Effects of Primitive Thought on Language" by Robert Gordis (AJSLL Vol. 55, No. 3 (Jul., 1938) , pp. 270-284)

I know that this speculation I just made was pulled out of my hat, but that possibility at least needs to be considered. Perhaps "יום שמחת" was Safed Kabbalah-speak for R. Shimon's bar Yohai's yahrzeit, although I agree that it isn't an ancient tradition.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Fred: News to anyone? Don't tell that to the hundreds of thousands who go to Meiron tonight.

In fact, I think more people go to Meiron on Lag Baomer then Yerushalayim for the regalim...(or maybe more than ever went to yerushalayim during bayit sheyni time).

And thats a scary thought.

Anonymous said...

"why we mourn during the sefira period (and why the currently espoused reasons may not be historically accurate)."

The earliest mention of mourning in sefira is from the gaonim, and so predates the crusades. Mourning was intensified during the crusades and practices became more widespread, but he's just wrong that it's due to the Crusades.

"Many accept that it's unlikely that Rabbi Akiva actually had 24,000 students learning in his yeshiva (Lakewood today has how many? 3000?) and this was a reference to Bar Kochba's soldiers rebelling against Rome. To keep all references to Jewish rebellion to a minimum, the Gemara referred to these soldiers as "students of Rabbi Akiva.""

That's because in the igeres r sherira gaon in discussing sefira he says "V'hava shmada" (unlike the gemara that says plague)

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Anonymous: As I quoted from the article - the mounring on Lag BaOmer could have been as early as the great eathrquake in 363...or it could have been earlier commermerating Yehoshua's yarhtzeit...

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>Fred: News to anyone? Don't tell that to the hundreds of thousands who go to Meiron tonight.

I didn't mean out folk-religionist brethren, but your point is taken.

FrumGirl said...

very interesting!

I may be wron gabout this bec my memory is fuzzy but didnt Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai die on his birthday... something about only the righteous dying on the b-days (like moshe rabbeinu) leading to the celebration of his death? Can someone look into that?

joem said...

The Meiri on the sugya that discusses the death of R' Akiva's students (Yevamos 62b) says that the plague stopped on Lab Ba'Omer, and possibly implies that that is the day that R' Akiva "travelled to the Rabbis of the south" and taught the 5 tana'im who "stood up the world".

Tzvee said...

Welcome to the 19th and early 20th centuries when many philosophers and anthropologists believed that religion was the result of perceptual uncertainty, deception, and illusion.

Oleh Yahshan said...

interesting, I have had issues with the whole "dance and party on the grave" for a while now - I think it makes a mockery of the rabbi - most people go there today to eat drink and do other things -
But then again I have a big issue with the Aliyah Laregel to Graves in General. Like people who come to Israel and spend most of thier trip here seeing dead people. Don't get me wrong - I hold each of the Rabbis at a high regard - but I don't go to ones grave - walk around it 7 times and hope for a bride (I forget the rabbi's name - up there in AMUKA near tzfat) and other such "magical" rabbis.

Chag Sameach to all...

A Frum Idealist said...

OK, I did my homework. Most of the Zohar was written by Reb Shimon Bar Yochai on the day of his petira. Some things were added later by his talmidim. It is brought down in the Zohar, that the day of his petira was Lag Baomer.
More recently, the dinnover Rebbe in the Bnei Yissaschar brings down that Lag Baomer was the Rashbee's yahrtzeit.

rockofgalilee said...

I think your homework is off a bit. Most people say the zohar was not written by the rashbi, though he developed the concepts and basis for it and then it was passed down orally through the generations before it was written much later.

Joe Settler said...

Why is it hard to accept that Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 students (since Lakewood has only 3000)?

Unlike today, I’m sure that Rabbi Akiva’s students held down jobs and supported their families and therefore were able to create a self-sufficient community (or communities) that learned, worked, kept mitzvot, and apparently even served in the army.

Ben Bayit said...

The sages changed many aspects of the Chanuka celebrations - from a chag that commemorated the rebuilding of the second bayit at the time of Haggai and the military victories of the Hasmoneas, to a spiritual holiday. This was for a group (the Maccabbees) that also took on a stronger power and actually WON the war, only to become corrupt later on. Does anyone really think that a Chag commemorating Bar Kochba and/or the attempt to rebuild a third temple - attempts that were almost doomed to fail from the start - had any chance of surviving in its original form?

The fact is that many Jews - Haredi, Modern Orthdox and Religious Zionists included - are uncomfortable with anything to do with the Mikdash, Bar Kochba or Jewish Nationalism. Abd that is why they go to Meiron and not Yerushalayim.

Pragmatician said...

Quite fascinating

I'm not even that surprised I've often surmised that so many of our traditions have little or nor record to them and therefore quite possibly we just turned a mistake into a tradition.
If you had been writing about a Fast day I would have grinned my teeth badly, but since it's barbecue day, who cares?

Anonymous said...

In sefer Shaar Hak.. Rav Chaim Vita... writes of a time the Ari went with his son to the kever of R. Shimon and gave his son his 1st haircut.."With regard to the custom of...and engage in joyous simchas at the kever of Reb Shimon... and his son...a different student told me that the year before I was there, the Ari.. came...with his young son and the rest of his family...there he...and engaged in drink in merriment..."
Before you argue on customs practiced by thousands of people for generations who were more knowledable than you and more pious than you...and before you corrupt the innocent tmimusdik masses, make sure you verify your facts and yes... your poisonous ulterior motived agenda... If need be, I could rack up other sources, but,...I loathe some of the blogs out there who...well...I think you understand...

Anonymous said...

Just heard some points on this last night.
Although the Chasam Sofer decries dancing on the graves of dead rabbis, he attributes the celebration to the day the manna began to fall.

Also - it could have been "yom semichas RShBY." After all the other students died, the survivors received their rabbinic ordination to continue the mesorah.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Anonymous: and before you corrupt the innocent tmimusdik masses, make sure you verify your facts and yes... your poisonous ulterior motived agenda

My poisonous ulterior motives? Corrupting the masses? I translated an article from the newspaper.

I'd love to here what my motives really are.

Please elucidate!

Akiva said...

Jameel:

The Ponevetz yeshiva system in Bnei Brak and Ashdod, combined, has 20,000 students. Now, that's from gan chova through kollel, but it's 20,000 nonetheless.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Akiva: And you think that the gemara's story of 12,000 zugot of talmidim was refering to pre-yeshiva gedola days?

And...I just translated the article. But its commonly accepted that the "talmidim" were more "followers of Rabbi Akiva" -- who were also soldiers of bar Kochba. (Since Rabbi Akiva himseld was a supporter of Bar Kochba)

Avi said...

I love those mistakes. At least one more mistake towards simchah, achdus of all the yidden.
Oy wey, I forgot that for most depressed ones is better to fast, morn, cry... I sense there will be two streams in our religion the crying judasim and happy judasim.
As far as to be truthful, LagBaOmer is established as a day of helulah of Rashbi way before Chaim Vital and the speculative mistake. Zohar HaKodosh (even if it is not written by Rashbi) was published 2 centuries before Ari HaKodosh and his talmid. Talmud is also alluding to that day (for those who love deeper connections), the story of Rashbi is printed on page Lag B in Shabbos. Of cuase it is a coincidence... :)
Happy festivities!!!!

Lurker said...

Avi: I love those mistakes. At least one more mistake towards simchah, achdus of all the yidden.

Hey, why not? Who cares about truth or accuracy as long as we're all smiling and happy?

Avi: As far as to be truthful, LagBaOmer is established as a day of helulah of Rashbi way before Chaim Vital and the speculative mistake.

Source, please.

Avi: Zohar HaKodosh (even if it is not written by Rashbi) was published 2 centuries before Ari HaKodosh and his talmid.

Where in the Zohar, exactly, is Lag B'Omer even mentioned (as a yom hilula of Rashbi, or as anything else)? I can find no such mention at all.

R' Adin Steinsaltz said...

Talmud is also alluding to that day (for those who love deeper connections), the story of Rashbi is printed on page Lag B in Shabbos.

Hmm, didn't see that in my edition.

Anonymous said...

Can we have a link that works to the Makor Rishon article,please?

me myself and irene said...

http://www.shofar.net/site/PrintARVersion.asp?id=8159

Anonymous said...

I used to not have a reason to celebrate. Now, not only do I have a reason to celebrate, but I can tell my children and friends that Haredim celebrate the creation of the IDF!

Not only is Lag b'omer associated with the bar kochva revolt, and the death of Yehoshua Bin Nun, but it's also the day the IDF was founded!

3 times we tried to conqure Israel, and all on the same day. It's like the opposite of Tisha b'av :)

Search the Muqata

Loading...

LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails