I’ll be the first to admit—I know nothing about Lag BaOmer. I’ve worked at a synagogue for two-and-a-half years, and I still couldn’t tell you what the “Omer” are exactly, except that “OMer” was the name of the raccoon logo for Odyssey of the Mind, a creative thinking program that I participated in religiously from fifth through eleventh grade. (So maybe that counts as some kind of observance of the Omer?)
It wasn’t until Sixth & I and 2239 got together to host Burning Mensch: A Lag BaOmer Celebration (on Sunday, May 18 at 5:30 pm—hint, hint) that I actually decided to investigate this mysterious holiday.
If you’re like me, you never learned about Lag BaOmer in Hebrew School. Our semester usually ended sometime in May, before the holiday usually occurs, and even if it did happen while we were still in session, our teachers were way too jaded by our apathy to try and teach us anything new. And so, I spent 24 years of my life still wondering what the what Lag BaOmer is.
I decided to ask the resident rabbis at Sixth & I, and here is what I learned (with a little help from My Jewish Learning):
1. No one really knows why Lag Bomer was started, sort of. To quote Billy Joel, “We didn’t start the fire.” Lag BaOmer is celebrated with bonfires and outdoor grilling, so it’s sort of like a Jewish Memorial Day (but not in the sense of memorializing fallen soldiers; there’s another day for that. It’s more in the sense that Lag BaOmer is traditionally celebrated with bonfires and barbecue, despite the fact that it has nothing to do with the reason for the holiday).
2. Omer is the period between Passover and Shavuot, and Lag BaOmer means “the 33rd day of the Omer.” The Omer are the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. These days are a period of semi-mourning for Jews (probably because lamenting is a favorite pastime of ours). Because of this, you’re not supposed to get married or hold other celebrations during the Omer. To physically express this grief, observant Jews won’t cut their hair, which brings us to the next thing I learned.
3. Lag BaOmer is kind of the most hipster of Jewish holidays. Men are supposed to grow beards, and as most of us know, the only people who grow long beards in the summer, are hipsters. It’s also custom to roast various meats over a bonfire. Folks, the dream of the 1890s is alive in Lag BaOmer.
4. The Omer is a period of mourning because there was a plague, which ended miraculously on Lag BaOmer. This part was actually a little unclear (as most Jewish teachings are, I guess, like, can there ever just be one reason for anything?). Here’s what My Jewish Learning has to say:
The most often cited explanation for the Jewish practice comes from the Talmud, which tells us that during this season a plague killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students because they did not treat one another respectfully. The mourning behavior is presumably in memory of those students and their severe punishment.
According to a medieval tradition, the plague ceased on Lag BaOmer, the thirty-third day of the Omer…As a result, Lag BaOmer became a happy day, interrupting the sadness of the Omer period for twenty-four hours.
5. You’re not supposed to get married during the counting of the Omer, but you are allowed to get married on Lag BaOmer. It’s one day of celebration in a sea of mourning, after all. Better do it big.
6. It’s actually not really that different from Burning Man. As you may have picked up, we at Sixth & I love a good pun, whether it’s our Purim event Thrilla in Megillah to Chanu-Comedy: A Festival of Laughs, but more often than not, our puns are more for laugh than meaning. For Burning Mensch, though, it’s actually not that far off from the way Israelis commemorate Lag BaOmer. Israelis traditionally celebrate this somewhat mystical holiday with huge bonfires in the middle of the streets. So, to recap, both have fuzzy origins, and both have huge bonfires.
7. You should actually come to Burning Mensch: A Lag BaOmer Celebration (and not just because I’ll be there Lag BaOmering it up). For anyone who spends too much time in the District, you often forget how great it is to get outside of the city—even for a day. And if you don’t really know that much about Lag BaOmer, maybe you can learn something, too. Either way, there will be barbecue, outdoor sports, s’mores, and, yes, fire.