18 Iyyar this week is the minor festival of Lag Ba’Omer when the somber mood of the S’firat HaOmer is lifted to allow marriages and celebrations.
Outside the Jewish people it was an important medieval period just after Easter when Christians embarked on Crusades to recapture the Holy Land. They were driven by excitement and idealism, though they wrought havoc in the lands they passed through and brought tragedy to any Jewish community that happened to be in their way.
But this is not the background of the difficult weeks of the Omer for Jews, nor does it explain why all of a sudden there was a bright day in the gloom.
There is a well known theory that the events of this season are connected with the revolt against the Romans in which thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students perished, with the calamities lifting on 18 Iyyar.
A fascinating and possibly valid explanation is given in Josephus, where we read that the after much planning, often in secret, the Jews rose up against the Romans on 17 Iyyar, with the news becoming known the following day, 18 Iyyar. So the gloom of the early part of the Omer was due to the Roman repression and the joy of 18 Iyyar was the Jewish response.
The fact that the uprising was not successful in the end accounts for the resumption of the period of gloom after 17 Iyyar, though not every Jewish community felt depressed once the national pride of the uprising had burst forth.
Why, if this is the way things happened, did Jewry speak of Lag Ba’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, and not 18 Iyyar, the more direct calendrical date?
Perhaps because their plans had more or less been in code, using an internal Jewish form of date which the enemy would not recognise.
WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT RABBI AKIVA?
The hero of Lag Ba’Omer is Rabbi Akiva.
When an epidemic carried off huge numbers of his students, the deaths ceased on the 33rd day of the Omer. Bereft of his students, he determined that he would raise up a new generation.
One way of looking at the story is to say that because Akiva was the spiritual mentor of the Bar Kochba revolt, the support of his disciples was crucial to the national cause.
However, the episode has a broader significance as a crucial chapter in the spiritual history of Judaism.
With the loss of the pupils of the greatest teacher of the generation, the continuation of the Torah would be at risk. Akiva might therefore have been the originator of the statement at the beginning of Pirkei Avot, “Raise up many disciples” (Avot 1:1).
The rabbis say that a handful of Akiva’s students survived the epidemic but when the teacher looked at them he thought that only one, Yehudah ben Bava, was sufficiently learned to have earned rabbinical ordination, so he was ordained on Lag Ba’Omer, and from this precedent developed the custom in some communities for candidates to be ordained on that date.
Yehudah was one of the ten martyrs, great as the cedars of Lebanon, who were put to death by the Romans.
THE FEMINIST WHO FOUGHT ROME.
Bar Kochba’s orders for the last revolt against the Romans were found in the 1960s in a cave in the wadi of Nahal Haver, near the Dead Sea.
Some of the Jews had hidden in the cave for safety, but the Romans trapped them there. The skeletons of this group were found in the cave; with them was a wallet of papers belonging to Babatha, daughter of Shimon. Many of the papers were in Greek and indicate that Jews often or occasionally took their disputes to the local Roman governor.
Despite the tense period, it seems that on the whole there were cordial relations between Jews and gentiles, and women were not too reluctant to take commercial or legal initiatives.
Babatha appears to have been a businesswoman and the papers include records of her business dealings.
Was she one of the eight women whose bodies were found in the cave together with men and children? Did she leave her records in the cave and go elsewhere, never to return?
We cannot be certain, but it is clear that women like Babatha were crucial in maintaining a semblance of normal living. That in itself was also a form of defiance of the overlords.