Many people have a custom to spend Lag B’Omer on Mount Meiron, where R. Shimon bar Yochai and his son, Rabbi Elazar, are buried. There, they rejoice greatly, light bonfires, sing, and dance. Among those who participate in these celebrations are tzaddikim (righteous individuals) and Torah scholars.
Some great Torah authorities, [however], doubted the legitimacy of this practice. After all, how can we establish a festival on a day when no miracle happened and that our Sages z”l did not institute as a holiday? Granted, we do not recite Tachanun or fast on Lag B’Omer, as is well known, but we find no source indicating that it is a holiday (Chatam Sofer, Y.D. 233). And if it is in honor of the anniversary of Rashbi’s death, it would be more fitting to fast, as is generally done on the day a tzaddik died. Therefore, how do people rejoice and make a hillula on the day R. Shimon bar Yochai died (Sho’el U’Meishiv, fifth edition, 39)?
Nevertheless, many people, including great scholars and righteous individuals, customarily celebrate there in a religious fashion. Even though, in general, the anniversary of a tzaddik’s death is a sad day, the kabbalists conveyed in the name of R. Shimon bar Yochai that he wanted people to rejoice on the anniversary of his death. The Zohar calls the day that Rashbi departed this world “hillula,” which is like a wedding celebration, for clinging to the Shechinah in this world is like engagement, while clinging [to it] in the next world is more comparable to marriage. Death is perceived differently in this world than it is in the next. In this world, death is viewed as the saddest occurrence, and when a tzaddik dies he leaves a great void, and the nation mourns its loss. In the supernal worlds, however, it is understood that everything is for the best. On the contrary, when a tzaddik is freed from the shackles of this world, he is privileged to absorb the full light of the Torah. This is especially true of tzaddikim who engage in the esoteric side of the Torah, for they are mainly involved in the inner, hidden light of the soul. Therefore, as long as they exist within the physical confines of this world, they cannot absorb the full inner light. However, when they depart this world and go beyond its physical boundaries, the gates of wisdom and the inner light are opened wide before them. Then, they understand the depths of the secrets they studied during their lives. Already on the day of death, it is possible to discern that the “walls” and “barriers” of this world are fading away. Accordingly, Idra Zutta relates that on the day Rashbi died, he revealed deep and wondrous secrets that he was not allowed to reveal beforehand, and he [simultaneously] cried and laughed.
Therefore, the day a tzaddik departs this world is similar to a wedding, because on that day he is privileged to fully connect to the Shechinah, and his Torah becomes a great light in the supernal worlds. Subsequently, his disciples and successors in this world can also connect more deeply to his Torah and the secrets [he taught]. This is why those students who understand this deep idea have a custom to celebrate a hillula on the day their righteous mentor died and revealed the Torah’s secrets. 1. The anniversary of death of a great scholar in the realm of the Written Law (Torah SheBichtav), which is fixed and stable, is a painful day. An example of this is the seventh of Adar, the day on which Moshe Rabbeinu a”h died. In contrast, we make a hillula on the day a great scholar in the realm of the Oral Law (Torah SheBa’al Peh) died, because his Torah continues to grow and become more detailed after his death. ]
R. Shimon bar Yochai, who wrote the Zohar, is unique in that even Jews who do not understand the secrets of the Torah commemorate the anniversary of his death. This is how Lag B’Oner became a day of celebration for the esoteric [side of] the Torah. Many people go up to Mount Meiron for Rashbi’s hillula. The great scholars among them rejoice over the secrets that were revealed to them in his merit and in the merit of his disciples and successors. The masses who join in the festivities – even though they do not understand the secrets of the Torah – rejoice over the fact that the Torah is deeper than the sea and that there are great and righteous people who connect to its deep secrets, for this entire world of darkness is enlightened a bit as a result of this. Furthermore, the very recognition that there are deep secrets beyond the average person’s comprehension generates humility and wisdom, and even simple people are elevated by virtue of this recognition.
- In Pri Tzaddik (Lag B’Omer 1), Rabbi Tzaddok HaKohen of Lublin explains the distinction [that resolves why we sometimes mourn on the anniversary of the death of a tzaddik and why we sometimes rejoice ↩