During the Omer—the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot—observant Jews mark the time when thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students perished from a plague by refraining from many joyous activities: having weddings, listening to live music, dancing, cutting one’s hair, buying new garments for the purpose of pleasure. Religious Jews also count this period every day during evening davening. But about two-thirds through the period, there is a reprieve from the mourning: the 33rd day is Lag B’Omer. (It’s called this because in gematria, the Hebrew letters of lamed and gimel (which spell lag) add up to 33.) Lag B’Omer is celebrated on the 18th day of Iyar; this year, that coincides with May 14 on the Gregorian calendar.
There are multiple interpretations as to why this is a day of rejoicing: Medieval tradition holds that the plague let up on that day; some believe that the manna fell from heaven on the 18th of Iyar; it is said that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a Kabbalah sage who died on the 18th of Iyar, declared that the day of his death be a day of rejoicing; it is possible that the Bar Kokhba rebellion reached a truce on that day. The holiday’s origins may be uncertain, but its customs are not; many Jews celebrate the day with bonfires and music.
From Tablet’s archives, read our best stories, essays, and articles about Lag B’Omer:
In the mood for something literary? Jeffrey Saks introduces his new translation of S.Y. Agnon’s Lag B’Omer short story To The Galilee, published for the first time in Tablet. “What the tale lacks in plot, it makes up for by preserving the charm and rhythms of pastoral Palestine during that time period,” Saks writes. The giant of modern Hebrew literature claimed a special affinity with Lag B’Omer, attributing many important personal milestones to the holiday.
Because observant Jews do not cut their hair or shave their beards during the Omer, many get haircuts on Lag B’Omer, and it is a custom in many Hasidic communities to cut their young sons’ hair for the very first time during the child’s third Lag B’Omer, which is what Sara Ivry did. Last year, visited a barbershop in Lower Manhattan.
While we’re on the topic of hair: Allison Hoffman and Lily Wilf wrote about how various organizations are turning the custom of Lag B’Omer haircuts into an act of tikkun olam by sponsoring hair drives to make wigs for those who have lost their hair for medical reasons.
Looking for some recipes for your Lag B’Omer celebration? A Jewish holiday is nothing without food, and even though there aren’t too many food traditions associated with this one, It is customary to eat carob, so Stephanie Butnick compiled five recipes for baked goods made from chocolate’s healthier cousin. A Jewish-Italian cook creates a frittata that symbolizes a peaceful respite between Jews and Romans during the Bar Kokhba revolt. And of course, a bonfire is nothing without s’mores, so check out the roundup of creative s’mores recipes that Elissa Goldstein, our Director of Audience Development, wrote for our sister site Jewcy.
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Miranda Cooper is an editorial intern at Tablet. Follow her on Twitter here.