Oz Torah: Lag Ba’Omer: The unusual yom-tov – Ask the Rabbi

THE UNUSUAL YOM-TOV.

Many factors make Lag Ba’Omer a yom-tov like no other.

We are not certain when it took hold of the Jewish spirit. We are unsure as to the real reason which brought it into being.

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It falls during a time of semi-mourning which is calculated in various ways. It has few liturgical customs. It is a break in the sombre mood of the Omer period, during most of which we do not celebrate weddings.

Unlike every other yom-tov, it centres neither on the synagogue or the home but rather in the fields and forests, with bonfires, picnics and sports – especially archery.

The bows and arrows presumably recall the fact that Rabbi Akiva’s students, fighting against the Romans, suffered from a plague that lifted on this day.

A second explanation – when the Romans banned the study of Torah, children would go to their lessons carrying bows and arrows so that any Roman sentry who saw them would think they were on the way to an outdoor picnic or to play sport.

Lag Ba’Omer is also the yahrzeit (death anniversary) of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (2nd century) who is regarded as the author of the mystical work, the Zohar. “Bow” is keshet, which is also a rainbow, which in the story of Noah is a symbol of peace (Gen. 9:11-17). It is said that no rainbow appeared while Rabbi Shimon was alive. His righteousness was itself a guarantee that peace would come.

The bonfires may derive from the Romans interference with the Jewish practice of lighting signal fires to mark the coming of a new month, so in later centuries a bonfire symbolised the right to religious and national freedom.

Another possibility is that the kabbalistic passion which attached such importance to Lag Ba’Omer was a fiery form of spiritual exhilaration.

The Talmud reports that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son fled from the Romans and lived in a cave for 13 years, studying and meditating.

When they emerged they were shocked at the banality of the world around them – whatever the rabbi looked at burst into flames – so they were sent back to the cave for another year until they realised that commonplace living was not to be despised.

MAN CAME LAST.

Q. When creating the world why did God make man last?

A. Little by little God’s creatures became more sophisticated and complicated. God started with simple things and moved on to the more complex.

The most complex creature is man who, according to Psalm 8, is “little lower than the angels”.

The rabbinic sages add that everything else was created before man in order to show that all was placed there to be at man’s service. Man in turn, though equipped with so many facilities and faculties, has to enhance the world, ruling but not ruining it.

Man has dominion over everything but he is warned “bal tash’chit”, not to destroy the riches God has placed in his hands.

CHRISTIANS & IDOLATRY.

Q. How can Rabbi Boteach write a book called “Kosher Jesus” when Christians have idols in their churches?

A. I have, as you probably know, spent many years of my life in interfaith and inter-community encounter, and I worry about the perception that Christians as a whole “have idols in their churches”.

Not all Christian groups do have statues, icons and other representations of Jesus. Even those that have them do not worship them as ancient idolaters worshipped their idols.

These are symbols, not gods, and though we are sure that Christian theology is erroneous (and that belief in Jesus is not “kosher”, to borrow Rabbi Boteach’s term) we cannot automatically dismiss Christians as idolatrous.

There are at least two major Jewish statements about the status of Christianity in terms of Jewish teaching.

Maimonides (12th-13th cent.) says that though the Christians are in error, they help to bring the world to the idea of the One God.

Menachem Meiri (Provencal, 13th-14th cent.) said that the Christians in whose midst the Jews dwelt could not be considered pagan or idolatrous but “people disciplined in the ways of religion” – i.e. neither true believers nor pagans but a different category altogether.

He could therefore not ban Jewish dealings with Christians and said that classical rules about not trading, etc., with idolaters did not apply to them.

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Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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