It is customary to rejoice to some extent on Lag B’Omer. Even though we observe some customs of mourning during the Omer period, one is, nevertheless, permitted to sing and dance on Lag B’Omer. Furthermore, one does not recite the Tachanun supplication on that day, nor does one recite it in the Minchah service of the previous day. In addition, one is not allowed to fast on Lag B’Omer. 1, but a bridegroom fasts (M.A. 573:1). Some say that a bridegroom does not fast (Mishmeret Shalom 38). The Levush, Pri Megadim, and others write that one does not recite Tachanun during Minchah of the previous day. The author of Chok Ya’akov, however, rules that one should recite it. See K.H.C. 493:28. It seems that the [prevalent] custom is to omit it. ]
The reason we rejoice on Lag B’Omer is that the Rishonim had a tradition that the students of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying on the thirty-third day of the Omer (Meiri, Yevamot 62b; S.A. 493:2). Some explain that his students actually continued dying afterwards, but on the day of Lag B’Omer, R. Akiva began teaching new students – including Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai – who did not die in the plague, and through them Torah spread among the Jewish people. This is why we rejoice on Lag B’Omer (Pri Chadash 493:2). Others claim that on the thirty-third of the Omer R. Akiva gave rabbinic ordination to his five [new] students – R. Meir, R. Yehudah, R. Yosi. R. Shimon bar Yochai, and R. Elazar ben Shamu’a – who continued the tradition of Torah (K.H.C. 493:26, based on Sha’ar HaKavanot). Another reason for rejoicing on Lag B’Omer is that it is the anniversary of the death (hillula) of the holy Tana, R. Shimon bar Yochai, who was R. Akiva’s disciple.
We will [first] summarize briefly the customs of mourning and rejoicing that pertain to Lag B’Omer. According to all customs, one may sing, dance, and play musical instruments from the beginning until the end of Lag B’Omer. Regarding weddings and haircuts [the matter depends on one’s custom]. Ashkenazim and some Sefardic communities allow weddings and haircuts during the day of Lag B’Omer, and some allow them even during the night. Most Sefardim, however, refrain from weddings and haircuts on Lag B’Omer (see above 3:4-5). Nonetheless, when Lag B’Omer falls out on Friday, one may take a haircut in honor of Shabbat, even according to Sefardic custom (S.A. 493:2). Those who follow the customs of the Ari z”l do not cut their hair on Lag B’Omer [even in this situation], because they refrain from haircuts throughout the Omer period, until the day before Shavu’ot (K.H.C. 493:13).
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 ↩
Before we elaborate on the customs of the hillula, we will briefly discuss the unique character of R. Shimon bar Yochai and his mentor, Rabbi Akiva. In general, our Sages preferred to follow the “middle path,” taking into consideration the difficulties that commonly arise in this world. Rashbi, however, adhered to the unadulterated truth, with no concern for the limitations of this world, and [God] performed miracles on his behalf, and he succeeded.
[Take for example], the issue of foreign rule [in the Land of Israel]. The Sages of Israel [always] taught that a Jew should pray for the welfare of the kingdom [under whose rule he lives], and they tried, to the best of their ability, to avoid clashes between the Jews and the [various] empires that ruled over them. Only when there was no other recourse, and the kingdom forced the Jews to violate their religion, did the Rabbis call for a rebellion. In the absence of religious persecution, however, they tried to find a way to reconcile with the kingdom. Accordingly, the Talmud (Shabbat 33b) relates that several Sages were once talking about the Roman Empire. R. Yehudah bar Ilai began the discussion with words of praise for the Romans, saying, “How pleasant are the deeds of this nation; they established marketplaces, erected bridges, and built bathhouses.” Even though R. Yehudah knew that the Romans issued harsh decrees against the Jews – even destroying the Second Temple and killing hundreds of thousands of Jews during the Great Rebellion and the Bar Kochva Revolt – he preferred to attribute the tragedies that the Romans brought upon us to other factors and concentrate on the positive sides of their rule, in order to avoid heightening the tensions. R. Yossi preferred to remain silent. Apparently, he did not agree with [R. Yehudah’s] words of praise, but he did not want to denounce [the Romans] either, so as not to create unproductive tensions. R. Shimon bar Yochi, in contrast, was unable to tolerate words of praise for the evil Roman Empire, and he said, “All that they built they built solely for their own needs. They established marketplaces in which to station prostitutes, bathhouses in which to pamper themselves, and bridges upon which to collect taxes.” The Roman found out [about this conversation] and decreed: R. Yehudah who praised us shall be promoted, R. Yossi who remained silent shall be punished with exile, and R. Shimon who denounced us shall be put to death. R. Shimon fled and hid in the beit midrash (study hall) together with his son, while his wife provided them with food and water. It is important to note that after the brutal rebellions that the Jews staged against the Roman Empire – rebellions that caused many Roman deaths and shook the [entire] Empire – the Romans took no chances and ruthlessly pursued any display of Jewish opposition to their rule. Apparently, Roman troops searched for Rashbi for years, in order to kill him. The situation became so dangerous that R. Shimon could no longer rely on his wife. Therefore, he and his son moved to a cave. Miraculously, a carob tree sprouted outside the cave and a stream of water began to flow there, providing them sustenance for twelve years, until they heard that the Caesar had died and his decree was nullified. [R. Shimon and his son] reached such great heights in Torah while there that when they left the cave they could not tolerate worldly concerns, and everything they looked at burst into flames. Consequently, they had to return to the cave for another year in order to delve deeper into the Torah and understand the value of this world. Only then did they leave the cave [permanently] (Shabbat 33b).
[Another example of Rashbi’s uncompromising nature] relates to the issue of making a living. Most of the Rabbis held that each individual needs to worry about making a living, and even Torah scholars need to work and support themselves. Rashbi, on the other hand, said, “If a man plows at the time of plowing, plants at the time of planting, harvests at the time of harvesting, threshes at the time of threshing, and winnows when there is wind, what will be of the Torah? Rather, when the Jews do God’s will, others do their work, and when they fail to do God’s will, they do their own work… (in addition to) the work of others” (Berachot 35b). 1. He also spoke a great deal about the uniqueness (segulah) of the Jewish people. [For example]: “Wherever the Jews were exiled, the Shechinah accompanied them” (Megillah 29a), and “The Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Jews three good gifts by way of suffering: Torah, Eretz Yisrael, and the World to Come” (Berachot 5a). ]
Even though R. Shimon bar Yochai’s path is not suitable for the public at large, and the necessities of life force us to consider life’s constraints – indeed, HaShem actually wants us work towards perfecting the world, while taking into account the obstacles in our way, without relying on miracles – nonetheless, there is great value in having a profound Torah scholar who lives his life according to [Israel’s] eternal values, without compromise. This way, everyone can see tangibly the wondrous [results] of absolute adherence to Torah. Granted, practical decisions and general guidance for the public are determined by the majority of Israel’s Sages, who take into account the limitations of this world and extenuating circumstances. Nevertheless, the great vision of faith and redemption shines forth from the strength of R. Shimon bar Yochai, who sacrificed himself for Israel’s glory and its faith, establishing for future generations that the Roman Empire, which persecuted the Jews, was an evil kingdom. This is why the Jewish masses hallow and venerate R. Shimon bar Yochai.
Rashbi’s focus on the esoteric side of the Torah is related to his [unique] character. By [studying] the secrets of the Torah, one can connect better to that which is beyond ordinary life in this world, to the eternal world, to Israel’s uniqueness (segulah), and to the assurance of redemption. After all, such study elevates a person beyond the external existence that oppresses [one] and conceals [the truth], illuminating eternal ideas with a precious light.
Similarly, Rashbi said that one may provoke the wicked in this world (Berachot 7b). In addition, he clung to the Torah so diligently that Torah became his “profession.” Therefore, the Gemara (Shabbat 11a) says that he was exempt from praying, because prayer deals with temporal life [as opposed to Torah, which is eternal life ↩
The hillula celebration of Lag B’Omer also memorializes, in hidden form, the greatest expositor of the Oral Law (Torah SheBa’al Peh), the wondrous Tana, Rabbi Akiva, one of whose greatest disciples was R. Shimon bar Yochai. The Talmud relates that Rashbi used to encourage his students to review his teachings because they were a compendium of R. Akiva’s Torah (Gittin 67a). Rashbi also learned to sacrifice himself for Israel’s honor from his master, for R. Akiva supported the rebellion against the Romans and encouraged Bar Kochva’s [revolt]. [As mentioned above, one of the reasons] we rejoice on Lag B’Omer is because of the secrets of the Torah [that were revealed on that day]. This aspect is also related to R. Akiva, of whom it is said that he entered the Pardes – that is, the deep secrets of the Torah – and came out unscathed (Chaggigah 14b). The other Sages who entered with him, however, suffered harm, for they were incapable of absorbing the awe-inspiring secrets of the Pardes.
The halachic reason given for rejoicing on Lag B’Omer revolves around the fact that R. Akiva’s disciples continued the mesorah (transmission) of the Torah, as we explained above (sec. 1). After all, R. Akiva is one of the pillars of the Oral Law. Rabbi Tzaddok HaKohen of Lublin explains (Pri Tzaddik, Lag B’Omer 1) that [the Rabbis] could not establish a holiday on the anniversary of R. Akiva’s death because he was killed by the government. Therefore, they established the hillula on the day his student, R. Shimon bar Yochai, died. Consequently, Rashbi’s hillula includes R. Akiva’s. Thus, it is fitting to focus on R. Akiva’s Torah and greatness on Lag B’Omer.
There was almost no one in history who began studying Torah under worse conditions than R. Akiva did. Nonetheless, by virtue of his diligence and great faith, he reached the loftiest heights (see Avot DeRebbe Natan, chap. 6). To a large extent, this was due to his wife Rachel, the daughter of Kalba Savu’a, one of the wealthiest Jews at the time. She recognized the lofty stature of her husband’s soul and agreed to marry him if he would learn Torah. [As a result], her wealthy father took an oath forbidding her from deriving any benefit from his possessions. Nonetheless, she refused to change her mind, married R. Akiva, and became one of the poorest Jews of the time. Despite all this, she continued, with great self-sacrifice, to encourage her husband to learn Torah. After R. Akiva became the Gadol HaDor (the greatest Torah Sage of his generation), he said to his students, “My [Torah] and your [Torah] is [truly] hers” (Ketuvot 63a).
“Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: ‘When Moshe ascended to the heavens, he found the Holy One, blessed be He, sitting and tying crowns onto the letters. He said to Him, “Master of the Universe, who is preventing You?” (Who needs the preciseness of these crowns? No one understands their meaning, anyway.) [God] responded to him, “There is a person who is going to live in many generations from now, whose name is Akiva son of Yosef. He is going to derive heaps and heaps of laws from every tip of a letter”… [Moshe] replied, “Master of the Universe, You have a man as great as that and You are giving the Torah through me?” Said [God], “Be silent! This is how I want it to be…”’” (Menachot 29b). The fact that HaShem showed Moshe specifically R. Akiva from among all the Sages of Israel indicates that he is considered the greatest expositor of the Oral Law (see also Sanhedrin 86a, where the Gemara states that all anonymous halachic teachings stem from him).
R. Akiva’s dedication to faith [in God] and Torah was boundless. Ever after 24,000 of his students died, he did not lose his faith. Rather, he continued to teach more students, from whom Torah spread throughout Israel. [Another example of his faith]: When he saw a fox leaving the site of the Holy of Holies, and his colleagues cried, he laughed, because of his faith that just as the prophets’ warnings of calamity came true, so will their words of consolation (Makkot 24b).
When the Romans issued a decree against Torah study, R. Akiva sacrificed himself and taught Torah to the masses. [Unfortunately, though], he was caught, incarcerated, and sentenced to a cruel death. Our Sages say: “When they brought R. Akiva out to be executed, the time to recite the Shema arrived. [The Romans] proceeded to comb his flesh with iron combs, and [despite this] R. Akiva accepted upon himself the yoke of Heaven [by reciting the Shema]. His disciples said to him, ‘Our master, even to such a degree?’ (Behold, one is exempt from reciting the Shema under such excruciating circumstances. Why, then, are you exerting yourself so greatly to read it?) He replied, ‘My whole life I was troubled by the verse With all your soul, [which implies that one must love God] even if He takes away your soul. I said to myself, “When will I have the opportunity to fulfill it?” And now that the moment has arrived, shall I neglect to fulfill it?!’ He proceeded to draw out the word echad (one) [in the verse, Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one], until his soul left him while saying, ‘one.’ A heavenly voice came forth and proclaimed, ‘Fortunate are you, Rabbi Akiva, for your soul left you with [the word] “one”’… A heavenly voice came forth and proclaimed, ‘Fortunate are you Rabbi Akiva, for you are ready for life in the World to Come’” (Berachot 61b).
For hundreds of years now, the custom has been to light a large bonfire near R. Shimon bar Yochai’s gravesite on Mt. Meiron, in honor of his hillula. Chassidim have a custom to light bonfires in other places as well. Some light candles in their synagogues in commemoration of the hillula.
Candles and light allude to Torah and mitzvot, as it says, For the commandment is a candle and the Torah is light (Mishlei 6:23). Fire is a wondrous thing. Out of inanimate, cold logs and oil suddenly comes forth a flame that has tremendous powers – to give light and warmth, and to burn. This is why Torah and mitzvot are compared to fire and a flame. By way of the Torah [that is studied] and the mitzvot that are observed in this dark, cold world, a person merits everlasting light.
Chassidim light bonfires on Lag B’Omer to allude to the great light of the hidden Torah that Rashbi revealed on the day he died. The Zohar (vol. 3, p. 291b) relates that R. Shimon bar Yochai revealed great secrets that day, which were recorded in Idra Zutta, and his students could not get near to him because of the great fire [that surrounded him].
Nevertheless, we must emphasize that the customs of [rejoicing on] Lag B’Omer are voluntary. Neither the Rambam nor the Shulchan Aruch rule that one must light a bonfire on Lag B’Omer or visit the grave of R. Shimon bar Yochai. Furthermore, many great rabbis disregard these customs altogether.
Some have a custom to refrain from cutting their son’s hair until the age of three. When the child reaches that age, they cut his hair and leave side-locks. This way they train him to keep the mitzvah of You shall not round the corners of your head (VaYikra 19:27), which means that one may not cut his hair in a rounded fashion, while removing the side-locks.
Those who follow this custom find an allusion to it in the mitzvah of Orlah. Chazal say that the three years of Orlah hint to the first three years of a child’s life, before he learns to speak, during which he does not fulfill any mitzvot. And in the fourth year, all of its fruit shall be sanctified for giving praise to the Lord (ibid. 19:24), meaning that his father consecrates him for Torah study (Tanchuma, Kedoshim 14). Those who follow this custom also explain that during a child’s first three years of life, he is like an Orlah tree, and one should therefore not cut his hair. When the fourth year arrives, however, and he is capable of sanctifying himself [to some degree], we cut his hair and leave him side-locks, which is the first mitzvah that we fulfill through him [that he can remember]. And this is a special mitzvah, because the child becomes recognizably Jewish through it.
Since this is the mitzvah through which we begin training the child to fulfill God’s commandments, the custom is to rejoice over it, in order to bring the child to love mitzvot. People, therefore, invite relatives and friends and honor them with food and drink.
Many Jews from the Galilee had a custom to cut their son’s hair at the burial site of R. Shimon bar Yochai in Meiron, so that the child’s inauguration into mitzvah observance can be accompanied by a connection to a tzaddik. Jews from Jerusalem, who lived far from Meiron, customarily went to the cave of Shimon HaTzaddik, north of the Old City. Other communities used to cut their child’s hair near the local synagogue, and still others ask a Torah scholar to cut the first lock of hair.
Some people have a custom to give haircuts on Lag B’Omer, in Meiron, to any boy whose third birthday fell or will fall within a few months of Lag B’Omer. Others are careful not to cut a child’s hair before his third birthday. Therefore, if his birthday falls out after Lag B’Omer, they wait until his birthday to cut his hair, and if he was born a few weeks before Lag B’Omer, they wait until Lag B’Omer to give him his haircut. But if he was born several months before Lag B’Omer, they cut his hair on his birthday. 1
However, it is important to emphasize that there is no obligation to follow these customs. Furthermore, the custom of giving haircuts to young children is not mentioned at all in the Rambam, Shulchan Aruch, or the works of the other renowned poskim. Therefore, anyone who wants to may cut his son’s hair even before his third birthday. This is the practice of many Torah scholars.
The Ari z”l cut his son’s hair at the age of three, on Lag B’Omer, in Meiron. See Responsa Arugot HaBosem, O.C. 210; Tiglachat Mitzvah VeInyanei Lag B’Omer; Bein Pesach LeShavu’ot, chap. 19. ↩
Many people have a custom of throwing expensive clothing into the bonfire at Meiron, explaining that they do so in honor of the Tana R. Shimon bar Yochai. There are even testimonies of great rabbis doing so. On the other hand, some gedolim are skeptical about this practice, claiming that it has no basis and, worse, is forbidden because of the prohibition against destroying things for no reason (bal tashchit). Granted, they used to burn the clothes of a king after his death, but that was because no one else is allowed to use them, out of honor for the king. Here, however, why should we burn clothing for no reason (Sho’el U’Meishiv, fifth edition, sec. 39; Chikrei Lev, last edition, Y.D. 11)? Others try to justify the custom, saying that one transgresses the prohibition of bal tashchit only when destroying something for no reason, but if there is a purpose, like honoring Rashbi, it is permissible (Torah Lishmah, 400). Nevertheless, it seems to me that it is preferable to donate the value of the clothing to charity than to burn them in a bonfire. 1 also performed this ritual. ]
When going to pray at the gravesite of the righteous, one must be careful not to turn to them in prayer, because we are commanded to pray to God alone. Anyone who prays to a tzaddik commits a sin and is similar to one who engages in necromancy, which the Torah forbids (Devarim 18:11). Some authorities permit one to turn to a deceased tzaddik and ask him to intercede before the Exalted One on behalf of those who pray at his grave (Pri Megadim 581, Eshel Avraham 16). Others, however, prohibit this, because this too has elements of necromancy. Rather, we must direct all of our prayers exclusively to the Master of the world, without introducing any middlemen into the mix. One who is praying to God may ask Him to accept his prayers in the merit of a particular tzaddik (Maharil, Taz 581:39), because when we connect to the Torah and good deeds of a tzaddik we become better people, and in that merit we ask God to accept our prayers.
For more on this, see HaMo’adim BeHalachah (Lag B’Omer) by R. Shlomo Yosef Zevin. Also see Tiglachat Mitzvah VeInyanei Lag B’Omer, pp. 243-48. In the same book, pp. 264-77, see Kuntras Kevod Melachim by R. Heller, Rabbi of Tzfat (Safed), who defends the custom and testifies that he heard that R. Chayim ben Attar [the Or HaChayim HaKadosh ↩