Saturday, September 03, 2011

Lag Baomer, a Holiday?




This is a synopsis of a lecture by Rabbi David Bar-Hayyim of Jerusalem.

Courtesy of Adam Abraham Kessler.
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The Talmud does not mention it.
The Zohar does not mention it.
Not even the writings of Luria (or rather his students) really mention it.

In Shaar HaKavanos (by Luria’s student Chaim Vital) Lag B’Omer is referenced as Yom SheMeis RaShBY. The original manuscripts (as obtained from the Vital family) actually refer to it as Yom Simchas RaShBY, a copyist left out the ‘chet’ in later editions so Simchas accidentally became SheMeis. The book records that Luria met a sage who would every day recite a particular Tefilla which was added on to Birchas Bonei Yerushalayim for Tisha B’Av. This sage in addition to reciting it every day would also say it on Lag B’Omer in Meron. Luria had a dream in which the RaShBY told him to tell the sage not to say it on the RaShBY’s Yom Simchato, and that if he persisted a calamity would fall upon him. Soon afterwards one of this sage’s children passed away. Vital also mentions that Luria observed the custom to go to Meron on Lag B’Omer a few times – and he also tenuously tries to make a connection between RaShBY and the account of R. Akiva’s students.

The Ben Ish Chai (who as a ‘Kabbalist’ was very familiar with Luria’s writings) writes in Daas U'Tvunah [Pp. 4] – that there is no source to suggest that LaG B’Omer is the date of RaShBY’s death, which would further seem to confirm that the possible reference in Shaar HaKavanot to RaShBY’s death is erroneous.

In the Shulchan Aruch; Orach Chaim: 493 it speaks about the Minhag of not getting married and cutting ones hair/beard, in 493:2 it says that the Minhag is not to cut one’s hair until LaG B’Omer because there is a saying that the Talmidim of R. Akiva ceased dying on that day, and therefore mourning is not appropriate and that one must wait until AFTER LaG to cut.

The Rama disagrees with this, saying that cutting ON LaG B’Omer is permitted, that we rejoice a bit and that there is no Tachanun. The Rama based his statement on the Maharil who says that even though it says in Yevamos 62b that they died from Pesach until Shavuous, that really they only died on days on which Tachanun is said - so you have to subtract all the non-Tachanun days from the 49 day Sefira period (7 days for Pesach, 3 days for Rosh Chodesh [2 for Iyar, 1 for Sivan], and 7 days for Shabbosim, which adds up to 17) so when 32 days are up there is some joy as a remembrance that there was a cessation of their deaths.

During the period of the later Geonim and possibly the earlier Rishonim there was a practice of making Aliya LaRegel [pilgrimage] to go to Jerusalem for Shavuos, people would come from many different directions (Syria, Bavel, Egypt etc.) and so there were particular places that groups of people would meet up from all over before continuing the trek to Jerusalem so that in larger numbers they could be assured greater safety. The primary meeting place before collectively moving en masse as a caravan to Jerusalem was in Meron on the 18th of Iyar. Because there was a tradition that RaShBY and his son R. Elazar were buried in Meron, somehow the connection was made in people’s mind between him and that day.

In 363 CE there was an earthquake in Jerusalem which was recorded in ancient Syriac by a bishop named Cyril who said it took place on 19th of Iyar, about 9 hours after sunset. This took place during the reign of the Roman Emperor Julianus [‘the Apostate’]. He was very against the rise of Christianity in the Empire and wanted it to revert to the paganism that preceded Constantine. As an attack on Christianity he desired that the Beis HaMikdash be rebuilt. Preparations began, but on the day that the actual work was to begin this earthquake occurred, destroying whatever preparatory work had already commenced. Additionally short afterwards Julianus died mysteriously (possibly assassinated).

From that date in 363 CE forward, the Jews observed the 18th of Iyar as a day of mourning. Perhaps the bishop’s calculation of the 19th was not in accord with the Jewish calendrical calculations but was very close – just apart by one day at the time. Either way this became a date of mourning as any hope of rebuilding the Beis HaMikdash at this late date was utterly dashed due to the devastation of the earthquake. Documents that were discovered at the Cairo Geniza which recorded the customs of communities in Eretz Yisroel mention the 18th of Iyar is to be observed as a fast-day.

So we see that LaG B’Omer is really not such a happy day, and that really something very strange has occurred over the last few centuries and it somehow underwent a transformation to being a day of joy.

What is clear – is that concerning this day – nothing is really clear at all. It’s a day clouded in mystery, and certainly not a day for great celebrations.

Additionally we have the Chasam Sofer who was very opposed the celebrations of LaG B’Omer. In a Teshuva he wrote (on Yoreh Deah: 233) he states that he heard about celebrations in Tzfas for the Yom Hilula of the RaShBY and that even though the revelers intentions are L’Shem Shamayim he cannot agree to the whole business – that he stays away from it… and also cites this as a reason for not moving to Tzfat because if they wanted him to be involved he would be forced to be Poreish Min HaTzibur. He says that to make this day, a day of celebration and lighting fires, and to do this in that particular place [namely Meron] is not right. Especially to innovate a holiday on which no miracle is recorded and that none of the Poskim refer explicitly to. He says he knows of no real reason for any of the rites associated with this so-called holiday.

LaG B’Omer seems to have become over-rated and gotten out of hand. One should be suspicious of any such holiday that arose over the last few centuries. All the popular Drashos about the connection of fire and kabala to lag b’omer is just a big mish-mash. It appears ok to have some Simcha on this day to have a relief from the Aveilus. However we should not think that it’s a profound deep day of great significance, mystical or otherwise.

Yevamos 62b – the regular girsa is as follows “It was said that R. Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Givat to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until R. Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were R. Meir, R. Yehudah, R. Yosi, R. Shimon and R. Eleazar b. Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: All of them died between Pesach and Shavuos. R. Chama b. Abba or, it might be said, R. Chiya b. Abin said: All of them died a cruel death. What was it? — R. Nachman replied: Azkara.”

Academic scholars and Torah scholars all agree that R. Akiva was a great supporter of Bar-Kochba. ChaZaL mention it in the Talmud Yerushalmi in Taanios Ch. 4 which says he was a great supporter of the revolt of Ben Koziba (which took place about 132-135 CE approximately 60 years after the Churban). The RaMBaM writes in Hilchos Melachim 11:3 “One should not entertain the notion that the Melech HaMoshiach must work miracles and wonders, bring about new phenomena within the world, resurrect the dead, or perform other similar deeds that the fools claim. This is definitely not true. A proof can be brought from the fact that that R. Akiva, one of the greatest Sages of the Mishnah, was arms bearer of King Ben-Koziba…etc” Indicating he was a great supporter of Kochba’s effort against the Romans, who at that time was the def-acto ruler of Eretz Yisrael. ChaZaL refer to him as Ben-Koziba HaMelech, and R. Akiva’s support with many students was pivotal. R. Akiva’s allegiance was more than in word, but also in deed. These students died in battle, and perhaps there was a particularly deathly period of slaughter that occurred between Pesach and Shavuos. The war was the most bloody war the Jews had experienced till that time. Hadrian who was in charge of putting down the revolt didn’t write back to Rome during this period {as he usually would} that he and his legions were at peace. Entire legions of Hadrian’s army were destroyed, they lost large amounts of people, that has been estimated to be between tens and hundreds of thousands dead. Needless to say the estimate on the Jewish side is considerably more. There was loss on both sides, even though the Romans ultimately won it was still not perceived as such a success because of all the loss.  The Jews tragically became a minority in EY because of both the number of Jews who were killed, or were enslaved, in tangent with the importation of gentiles into EY. From that time, the Jews of EY never really recovered. Most Jews were forced northward into Galil and Golan… Lod became considered the ‘south of the country’ as it says in Sanhedrin 62b that R. Akiva. Went ‘Etzel Rabboteinu Shebadarom’. We know that this was Lod.  Concerning the Gemara referring to a plague – ‘azkara.’ It seems it was either internal voluntary censorship on the part of the Chachamim– to discourage and prevent revolt, because to do so would mean the end of Jews and Judaism, or it was censorship born of external factors such as fear that the Romans would prevent them from speaking openly about the historical truth so they couched it in other terms, for example many Aggados if looked at with a discerning eye clearly refer to revolt and this could be such an instance.  
R. Akiva was ultimately killed because he was a political supporter of Bar Kochba, and to get a sense of the conditions we can take a look at Maseches Shabbos 33b which records that R. Yehuda, R. Elazar, and R. Yosi [who were all students of R. Akiva in the period right after the revolt]  were sitting, and Yehudah the son of proselytes, was sitting near them. R. Yehudah commenced [the discussion] by observing, 'How fine are the works of this people (referring to the Romans)! They have made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths.' R. Yosi was silent. R. Shimon b. Yochai answered and said, 'All that they made they made for themselves; they built market-places, to set harlots in them; baths, to rejuvenate themselves; bridges, to levy tolls for them.' Now, Yehudah the son of proselytes went and related their talk, which eventually reached the government. They decreed: Yehudah, who exalted [us], shall be exalted, Yosi, who was silent, shall be exiled to Sepphoris; and Shimon, who censured, let him be executed.

R. Shimon b. Yochai and his son R. Elazar had to flee as a result, and were fugitives for many years from the Romans, and hid in a cave, and the Gemara proceeds to record the miraculous nature of a carob-tree and a water well springing forth within the cave in order to preserve them. Indeed we see that R. Shimon was a radical, and that he had inherited ideas from his teacher R. Akiva. So we see that there is a connection between Sefiras HaOmer and the deaths of R. Akiva’s students, but it is not the usual connection that is made, it is really a result of the revolt.

Indeed we see that there was another girsa [version] of the Gemara that was previously extant which seems to confirm this. In the Iggeret of R. Sharira Gaon [in the nusach sfaradi text] sent to Jews in Spain he writes a short history of Torah Shebaal Peh, which  says R. Akiva had many students, and there was a Shmada [Roman decree (i.e. war)] on them, and that he had 12,000 students [not pairs] which died between Pesach and Shavuos. Further proof of the meaning of Shmad can be seen from context of the discussions continuation. Which notes that in time of Rabi there was period of grace, decrees [shmad] were relaxed. Because of the good relations between Antinonius and Rabi.

The whole Minhag of Aveilus during this period of Sefiras HaOmer has its roots in the national mourning of the Jews as a result of the destructiveness of the Kochba revolt. One would think that ChaZaL would have instituted an official mourning as a result. Speculatively perhaps they didn’t for 2 reasons. One being that the Romans would not have allowed it, that it was just politically untenable, and the other is that maybe the Chachamim might have felt that it was not appropriate to turn such a long period into one of mourning. that it is more appropriate to concentrate it into the 9th of Av. So it appears this is something the nation took on of their own accord, and was commemorated by the cessation of shaving and hair cutting. However it appears that such is a bit out of hand, we see even by the mourning of one’s parents – one goes past the initial period of shloshim, until people begin to tell you that you appear scruffy. Seven weeks is clearly way beyond that, also for marriage the same would apply. It seems the Minhag got out of hand. The RaDBaZ speaks approvingly in a Teshuva of communities that shave Lichvod Shabbos during this period, and that he permits marriage without waiting for such a long period of time. This is in ShU’T RaDBaZ 2:687 “I personally conduct myself in this manner - I [allow myself to] cut my hair throughout the month of Nissan and on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and this is the widespread custom… the custom [to allow haircutting on Rosh Chodesh, i.e. not to observe practices of mourning thereon] comes and overrides the lower-level custom. And besides, I have seen many communities who never observed this custom, and they cut their hair every week in honor of Shabbat…”. He also says that it is very uncomfortable for one who is used to shaving/cutting his hair to refrain, and if one is exempted due to irritation in a case by a Mitzvah Asseh such as sleeping in the Sukkah, then certainly by a Minhag, an alleviation from the botherance is permissible. ChaZaL certainly would not have instituted such a long burdensome period of mourning.

However there is certainly something to be said of commemorating the events, whether you hold the whole omer, or any of the variations.

In the QA session after the Shiur: Q is addressed as to whether on should say Tachanun on Lag B’Omer, the Rabbi responds by citing the RaMBaM in Hilchos Tefilla end of Ch. 5 which states that “it is an accepted custom among the entire Jewish people not to utter Neffilas Apayim on Shabboses or Moadim, nor does one utter it on Rosh Chodesh, Rosh HaShana, Chanuka or Purim or in Mincha of erev Shabbos or Yomim Tovim or in the Maariv of any day” Beyond that there are no other days that one should not say it (though in Maseches Sofrim which is not mentioned by the RaMBaM perhaps there is reason not to recite it during Nissan). Outside of a reasonable cause and justification to not do so, one should say Nefillas Apayim on Lag B’Omer. Obviously if one is in a place where such is not the custom, he should do so separately in private so as not to increase controversy and division.

4 Comments:

At Monday, December 12, 2011 12:50:00 PM, Blogger Reb Chaim HaQoton said...

There is also a Chida about the origins of Lag B'Omer in Birkei Yosef.
See also http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/734356/Dr_Shnayer_Leiman/The_Strange_History_of_Lag_B'Omer

 
At Monday, December 12, 2011 2:25:00 PM, Blogger Joels W. Davidi said...

Thanks for that. I'll check it out.

 
At Monday, December 12, 2011 2:40:00 PM, Blogger ישבב הסופר said...

This is the 1st time I am hearing of a Jewish support of Julian's rebuilding the Temple. It may be they were mourning the calamity of an earthquake, with the Temple's destruction not playing a role.
How Rabbi Bar Hayyim links the 12,000 pairs of disciples to the Bar Koziba Revolt, is nothing short of a hypothesis. Chazal say it was Askara, [a fatal illness which kills through asphyxiation] and Bar Hayyim says they were killed by the Romans during the Bar Koziba revolt and Chazal censored it.
Why didnt Chazal need to censor the Gemara in Gittin about the destruction of Tur Malqa? Graphic depictions of Roman atrocities, thousands upon thousands of spattered brains of children, and astronomical numbers of victims. As far as I see it, there are absolutely no grounds for his entire conspiracy theory.

 
At Monday, December 12, 2011 2:40:00 PM, Blogger ישבב הסופר said...

This is the 1st time I am hearing of a Jewish support of Julian's rebuilding the Temple. It may be they were mourning the calamity of an earthquake, with the Temple's destruction not playing a role.
How Rabbi Bar Hayyim links the 12,000 pairs of disciples to the Bar Koziba Revolt, is nothing short of a hypothesis. Chazal say it was Askara, [a fatal illness which kills through asphyxiation] and Bar Hayyim says they were killed by the Romans during the Bar Koziba revolt and Chazal censored it.
Why didnt Chazal need to censor the Gemara in Gittin about the destruction of Tur Malqa? Graphic depictions of Roman atrocities, thousands upon thousands of spattered brains of children, and astronomical numbers of victims. As far as I see it, there are absolutely no grounds for his entire conspiracy theory.

 

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