A reminder of the essence of Torah on the way to Sinai

Rabbi Tracy Nathan

By Rabbi Tracy Nathan

Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day within the period of counting the Omer — the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot — is this Saturday night through Sunday night. 

Its origins as a holiday are not entirely clear, though it has been linked to two of the great teachers of our tradition. 

During the Omer period, legend has it that 12,000 pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s students died, and on Lag B’Omer there was a respite from the dying. The Babylonian Talmud provides a reason for this tragedy: The students did not treat each other with honor and dignity (Yevamot 62b). 

Another tradition is that Lag B’Omer is the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, who lived in the second century C.E. and was one of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples. The Aruch haShulchan tells us that Lag B’omer was also the day that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai “left the cave.” 

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The Babylonian Talmud in Shabbat 33b (appropriately!) records the story of the 12 years that Rabbi Shimon and his son hid from the Romans in a cave and studied Torah all day long. When the Roman Emperor died, they emerged from the cave and began to disparage a man for working in his field rather than attending to his spiritual life and studying Torah. Anywhere they placed their gaze burned up as fire shot out from their passionately judgmental eyes.

Before they did further damage, a Bat Kol, a Divine Voice, called out, “Have you come out to destroy My world?! Return to your cave.” Father and son returned to the cave and remained there for 12 months until the Bat Kol invited them to emerge once again.  

They come out of the cave Friday night before sunset. They see an old man holding two bundles of myrtle and ask him what the myrtle is for. The man replies, “Likvod shabbat” — it is for the honor of the Sabbath. He intended to beautify the Sabbath through fragrance and beauty. Rabbi Shimon said to his son: “Look how precious are the mitzvot (sacred obligations) to Israel!” 

Rabbi Shimon has changed; he expresses curiosity toward another human being and seeks to learn from him. The old man teaches them that even working the soil is something that can be sanctified, for myrtle can bring honor to the Sabbath.

Rabbi Shimon went from someone whose mystical experiences led him to disconnection with the world and judgment of humanity to one who values each person, and this made him a great tzaddik. He initially had not gone far enough in his mysticism to see how all was connected with the Divine, that everything was potentially meaningful and spiritual if approached with curiosity and awareness. 

Lag B’Omer is a holiday in the midst of the journey toward Shavuot, Sinai and Torah, in which we recall that the essence of Torah is to love your neighbor as yourself, which Rabbi Akiva said is the greatest principal of Torah. 

We remember the failure of his students in living that Torah — or perhaps Rabbi Akiva had not yet made this the central focus of his teaching until the tragedy that befell his students.

Lag B’Omer reminds us to view the world and especially other human beings not with judgmental eyes that have the capacity to destroy but rather with eyes of love and curiosity and a vision that sees the Divine in everything. 

Rabbi Tracy Nathan is senior educator with the Center for Jewish Learning at Jewish Federation of St. Louis.