Lag B’Omer: Plagues and renewal, then and now


BP Graphic by Ezra Helfand

LEARN: Rabbi Simon bar Yochai and his son studied in a cave for 12 years, fed only by a carob tree outside.

By Yael Schechter, 11th Grade

Lag BaOmer is a joyous holiday that takes place on the 33rd day of the omer – the 49-day period between Passover and Shavuot, when we mourn the deaths of the students of Rabbi Akiva who were punished for relating badly to each other. Lag BaOmer is a break from all the mourning we have been doing, a happy day of renewal when people cut their hair, get married and come together as a community to celebrate. 

What are we celebrating?  Rabbi Akiva, who lived from 50 – 135 CE in Roman-controlled Israel, had many students, and over time these students started treating one another badly and not respecting each other’s opinions. Because of this, they were struck with a plague that killed all but five of them. The 33rd day of the omer is the day when his students stopped dying and that is why we celebrate today. 

Rabbi Akiva was 40 years old when he started learning the most basic skills, including the alef-bet, in a yeshiva for the first time in his life. But he never gave up, neither because of his age nor because he thought he was too old to attend school.  From Rabbi Akiva we learn that you’re never too late to start something and there is always a second chance.

One of the five students of Rabbi Akiva who survived the plague was the famous Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai.  Rabbi Bar Yochai spoke against the Roman government, and when one of his students made the Roman governor aware of this, he  fled to a cave with his son Rabbi Elazar to escape persecution. The two learned together in the cave for 12 years, nourished by a carob tree and doing nothing but praying and learning during their entire time there. Some believe that Rabbi Bar Yochai died on Lag BaOmer, and honoring him for his determination to study Torah is another reason we celebrate today.

And like Rabbi Akiva, if we want to restart our lives and change the course of how we live, we can and we should.

Thus there are so many things we can learn from Lag BaOmer.  We can learn to be kind to one another. Like Rabbi Akiva’s students, people in today’s world seem to also forget to treat each other with respect. Rabbi Akiva’s students were punished with a plague; perhaps in the present time we have also been presented with plagues of illness, hunger and violence. Maybe if people treated each other with more kindness and respect, we would have less death and violence in the world.  We must try to make more of an effort to be more polite and nice to the people around us. 

As I see it, this day is a day of celebration and renewal. We are celebrating Bar Yochai’s life and all the time he committed to learning Torah, and the stopping of Rabbi Akiva’s students’ deaths. We are also celebrating Rabbi Akiva’s determination to learn and study Torah even though he started at age 40.  So as we stop mourning and begin to renew ourselves with fresh haircuts and weddings, unlike Rabbi Akiva’s students, we should treat each other with kindness and respect. And like Rabbi Akiva himself, if we want to restart our lives and change the course of how we live, we can and we should. 

Chag Sameach!