by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – May 2, 2010

From the second day of Pesach (Passover) until the onset of Shavuot, we are enjoined by the Torah: “And you shall count … seven weeks … you shall count fifty days” (Vayikra 23:15-16).  We count from the initiation of the holiday in which we celebrate our miraculous release from the slavery of Egypt up to Shavuot, thereby demonstrating our eager anticipation of the anniversary of the time of our receiving G-d’s divine blueprint for life.

During this period of counting, known as sefirat ha’omer, a certain degree of mourning is observed.  Weddings are not performed, hair is not cut, nor do we engage in joyous music.  This is done in memory of the 24,000 disciples of the great Tanna R. Akiva who died between Pesach and Shavuot because they did not sufficiently respect one another (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 62b; Bereshit Rabbah 61:3; Kohelet Rabbah 11:6).

On the thirty-third day of the aforementioned counting, known as Lag Ba’Omer, tradition has it that no disciple of R. Akiva died.  Consequently, on this day of Lag Ba’Omer, forms of mourning practiced during the other days of sefirat ha’omer are halted (see Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 493).

Tradition also has it that on this day of Lag Ba’Omer the wondrous Tanna R. Shimon bar Yochai departed this world to allow his perfected soul to regale in the pleasures of the world to come.  His body was buried in a cave in Meron.  Lag Ba’Omer is, then, also treated as a day of joy to commemorate the ascension of R. Shimon bar Yochai’s pure soul.  Masses of people make pilgrimages each year on this day to the grave of R. Shimon bar Yochai in Meron, and Jews the world over engage in singing and dancing.

May we all duly respect each other and perfect our souls and, thereby, merit the bliss of the world to come when it is our time for our souls to ascend heavenward.