Brookwrite

Columns - 2004

    Lagging holidays

    By Doug Brook
    Deep South Jewish Voice Columnist

    Lord, you created many, many holidays. I realize of course, it's no shame to have holidays, but we don't get days off for most of them. So what would be so terrible if I wrote a small primer?

    Of the many obscure, oft-forgotten holidays on the Jewish calendar, Lag B'Omer ranks near the top.

    Don't know what I'm talking about? My point is made.

    First, let me tell you about the omer. In Ancient Times (pre-Star Wars), the omer was an offering brought on the second day of Passover to The Temple in Jerusalem.

    The offering was a dry measure of barley, some say about forty-three ounces. Barley was offered as a representative of the spring harvest though, unfortunately, barley cannot be otherwise consumed during Passover. I say this is unfortunate because this year the second day of Passover fell on Beef Barley Soup Day at the Hofbrau.

    So, Lag B'Omer was originally a day celebrating the harvest offering, and how the priests would "throw another lag on the omer."

    Okay, seriously. It should come as no surprise that the word "omer" has more than one meaning, thanks to the tradition of rabbinic law which clearly specifies that "no word, item, or sudden breath regarding Judaism may have less than two ascribed significances."

    Therefore, the omer is also a period of forty-nine days, or seven weeks (whichever comes first), beginning on the forementioned second day of Passover. The omer culminates with the third festival holiday, Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. (Shavuot is named for the seven weeks prior to Shavuot, not for an annual dinner where Jews feast on the weak as propagandized by those who theorize about Zionist-fascist-British-Banker conspiracies.)

    Shavuot also makes the list of top neglected Jewish holidays, since most people are in summer camp or the Bahamas by then. Shavuot is the two day holiday commemorating the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, without dropping it.

    In certain traditions, the omer is a period of mourning for reasons too numerous and debated to elaborate in this space. During the omer, Jews would abstain from certain celebrations and indulgences, including weddings, bar mitzvahs, haircuts, and, unfortunately, victories over the New York Yankees.

    The holiday of Lag B'Omer is an oasis during the omer. It's the day on which you can do all this stuff again.

    How did Lag B'Omer get started? I'll tell you, I don't know. But it's a tradition. And, once again, there are many possible explanations as to its origins.

    "Lag" is a word formed from the Hebrew letters that symbolize 30 (lamed) and 3 (gimel). Therefore, Lag B'Omer is the thirty-third day of the omer.

    To this day, in Israel a large number of weddings occur on this day, a tradition which started due to the annual backlog of people for whom matches were made at the seder table one month prior. (This is why, at cocktail parties, you can tell people that June brides are a Jewish invention, thanks to years when Passover doesn't start until late April.)

    In another symbolic nod to the day, young children are often given their first haircuts on Lag B'Omer. Of course, cutting the hair on the first day possible is obvious, but it's also symbolic of the pain and suffering the omer recalls, as inflicted by the children on their barbers.

    Bonfires are lit on Lag B'omer, and children are encouraged to play with bows and arrows. In Israel, Lag B'Omer is often a day off from school, and many of these practices are indulged by the schoolchildren then.

    Why bonfires? Some say Lag B'Omer commemorates the Bar Kochba rebellion against the Romans, and that the bonfires lit in open spaces symbolize the freedom that the rebellion sought.

    Why encourage kids to play with bows and arrows? Again, when the Romans ruled Israel, Jews were not allowed to study Torah. It is said that Rabbi Akiba would have his students dress as hunters, and they'd wander the woods under this pretense so they could study together.

    Lag B'Omer is also known as the primary Jewish festival associated with the outdoors. Well, historically this is true. Though the long lost Mishnah tractate Bava Gump questions the validity of this. After all, the other harvest holiday Sukkot involves being outdoors (granted, in a sukkah) for eight days, at least for meals by moonlight (or traffic light, if needed).

    And in recent times, Tu B'shvat (which means the fifteenth not the second day of the month of Shvat) was added to the calendar as Jewish Arbor Day. Arbors typically grow outdoors, and so are planted outdoors on this day.

    No wonder you never heard of Lag B'Omer.

    Nevertheless, Lag B'Omer is not entirely forgotten outside of Israel. Some temples and Jewish organizations in America hold Lag B'Omer picnics or bonfires. In truth, when I was growing up, the end of the school year included a Lag B'Omer picnic to help celebrate the survival (both students' and teachers') of another year of religious school.

    By some extraordinary coincidence, this year, Lag B'Omer falls on Mother's Day -- a rare treat for the seventeen people who still observe the many restrictions of the omer. Of course, many of us breathe a sigh of relief because we can get away with getting our mothers one present for Mother's Day and Lag B'Omer at the same time.

    I suggest, in honor of the once-in-a-lifetime coincidence of Lag B'Omer and Mother's Day, every child should make sure their mothers know they're thinking of them by asking for permission to play with a real bow and arrow. I know such a request would particularly move my mother... to hang up the phone.

    Doug Brook is a technical publications program manager in Silicon Valley. You just missed his very successful staging of Fiddler on the Roof in Sunnyvale, California. You may ask, how can I get more information, past columns, other writing, and other current events? Visit his website at http://brookwrite.com/.

    Copyright Doug Brook. All rights reserved.