The Torah, as interpreted by the ancient Jewish sages, prescribes a sequence of special rituals commencing on Passover with the offering of a sheaf (‘omer) of barley, and culminating, after a count of seven weeks, in the Feast of Weeks— Shavu‘ot—fifty days later. In their original biblical context, the offerings serve to acknowledge our dependence on divine providence for the success of the barley and wheat harvests, and express our appreciation for the agricultural bounty that we hope to enjoy.
In subsequent generations, however, the period between Passover and Shavu‘ot took on a very different tone as a mournful season in which people are supposed to refrain from displays of cheerfulness. It is against this background of sadness that a distinct personality has been assigned to the thirty-third day in the sequence, which is known as “Lag [= 33] ba-‘Omer.” This day is a happier one and—depending on the tradition followed by one’s particular community—it is observed either as a temporary interruption of the mourning regimen or as its conclusion.
The biblical and talmudic sources have little to offer us when it comes either to the reasons for the period’s sorrowful character or for the exceptional status of the thirty-third day.
There is however one particular text in ancient rabbinic literature that became the focus for the tradition that associates the ‘Omer period with tragedy and mourning. The Talmud tells of twelve thousand pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples who all perished within a short time span. An interpretation cited in the Talmud identifies that time period as the days between Passover and Shavu‘ot, though this detail is not mentioned in all the versions of the story.
Previous generations of historians linked this tradition to reports about Rabbi Akiva’s support for the Bar Kokhba insurrection (around 132-135). More recent scholarship is more skeptical about its historical value, regarding it as no more than a pastiche of motifs and clichés stitched together from assorted rabbinic passages.
Nowhere in the Talmud or Midrash do the rabbis draw any normative implications from the story, and there is no suggestion that the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples are supposed to be commemorated through restrictions on joyful activities. Nevertheless, such restrictions–albeit to a far more limited extent than would become the later norm—became an established feature of the season by the eleventh century.
Early authors treat the entire seven weeks as a single unit. It is not until the early thirteenth century that we hear for the first time about the thirty-third day of the ‘Omer being an exception to the mood of mourning that prevails through the rest of the season. This date makes its first recorded appearance in the works of Rabbi Eliezer ben Joel Halevi (Raviah) in Germany. He provided no explanation for the significance or origin of this date, stating only that until then it is customary not to hold weddings.
The Provençal scholar Rabbi Abraham ha-Yarḥi of Lunel, author of an encyclopedic survey of customs in different Jewish communities, reported that Jews in France and Provence would also forgo weddings from Passover until the thirty-third day of the ‘Omer.
Furthermore, in the name of his compatriot Rabbi Zerahiah ha-Levi of Lunel he claimed to have an ancient textual source for this custom. Rabbi Zerahia cited a version of the talmudic tale about Rabbi Akiva’s disciples according to which the plague extended between Passover and “pros” Shavu‘ot. “Pros” is a Greek preposition that simply means “before” and is employed in that sense in rabbinic Hebrew; however Rabbi Zeraḥiah creatively equated it with a Hebrew word meaning “portion” or “half.” On the basis of this imaginative exegesis Rabbi Zerahiah interpreted the talmudic text as if it were saying that the disciples continued to die until half a month—fifteen days—before Shavu‘ot, which (with a bit of tweaking the numbers) brings us to Day #33 of the ‘Omer period! In any case, even if the arithmetic did work out neatly, the crucial word is not attested in any extant manuscript of the Talmud.
It is now known from a list of fast days preserved in the Cairo Genizah and from liturgical poems composed by prominent synagogue poets that the eighteenth day of Iyyar, equivalent to the thirty-third day of the ‘Omer, was observed in the land of Israel as the anniversary of the death of the biblical Joshua. It has been proposed that traditions about this date were carried to Europe by pilgrims returning from the holy land and that they somehow evolved there into the familiar Lag ba-‘Omer celebration.
Against this thesis it is argued that, after all, numerous “yahrzeits” of that sort were observed in Israel, and it is far from obvious why this particular one should have achieved special prominence or why it came to be celebrated as a festive occasion.
A much later spurious tradition, ascribed to the kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, claimed that Lag Ba-‘Omer was the date of the death of Rabbi Simeon ben Yoḥai, the reputed author of the Zohar—but neither the Zohar nor Rabbi Luria ever actually made any such an assertion.
All of this contributes to an impression that scholars were scrambling to find an authoritative basis, no matter how forced or unconvincing it might be, for a custom that they could not otherwise explain.
A Syriac document first published in 1977 and attributed to Cyril, the fourth-century Bishop of Jerusalem, identifies Iyyar 19, the calendar date equivalent to Day #34 of the ‘Omer, as the date in the year 363 when the attempt by Emperor Julian to rebuild the Jewish Temple C.E. was disrupted by an earthquake, such that the actual construction would have commenced on the previous day.
Julian “the Apostate,” the last imperial champion of old Roman religion (albeit in a philosophically refined mystical version), was determined to do everything in his power to offend the Christians and to subvert the favoured status that they had achieved under Constantine. Though Julian had no particular fondness for the religion of Israel, he reasoned that the restoration of Judaism’s holiest shrine would effectively debunk the Christian theological claim that Jerusalem’s ruin, as foretold by Jesus, attested to the Jews’ rejection by God and the supersession of their Torah by the new faith.
Understandably, the Jews were very enthusiastic about this favourable upturn in their circumstances. If the document is authentic, then it is possible that Lag Ba-‘Omer originated in the high hopes that Jews initially pinned on Julian’s project, a development that they viewed as a harbinger of their imminent redemption from the yoke of Rome.
Unfortunately, however, the Jews’ soaring spirits soon plummeted when a natural disaster overturned the project at its very outset. Worse still, the spokesmen for the Christian church missed no opportunity to gloat over what they saw as divine confirmation of their theological claims. It has therefore been suggested that the short-lived day of celebration on the eighteenth of Iyyar / 33rd day of the ‘Omer was transformed into a day of respite from a season of national grieving whose original significance was effectively forgotten or suppressed.
The Bible describes the words of the Lord as “pure words: as silver... refined sevenfold.” The Talmud interpreted “sevenfold” in the sense of seven times seven, forty-nine. They inferred from this that there are fifty “gates of understanding,” but the ultimate fiftieth level was unattainable even for the greatest prophet, Moses. That statement has inspired commentators over the ages to propose innumerable sublime and mystical interpretations.
The mystery of the thirty-third day of the sevenfold counting will probably have to remain one of those humbling questions about which we must resign ourselves to ignorance—at least for the time being.