Author Archives: Francine Klagsbrun

Francine Klagsbrun

About Francine Klagsbrun

Francine Klagsbrun is a writer, editor and columnist. She has also devoted her energies to the Jewish Publication Society, the Jewish Museum, the JTS Library, the American Jewish Committee, and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

Lag Ba’Omer

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Reprinted with permission from Jewish Days: A Book of Jewish Life and Culture (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Few of the many couples who marry on Lag Ba’Omer give much thought to why this is one of the very few days between Passover and Shavuot when Jewish law permits weddings. If they were to investigate, they would find a conflicting array of explanations, all appealing, none definitive.

Why We Celebrate

The explanations begin with the Omer period itself, those forty-nine days that are counted off one by one between the two festivals. This is a time of semi-mourning, when weddings and other celebrations are forbidden, and as a sign of grief, observant Jews do not cut their hair.shutterstock_101356336

Anthropologists say that many peoples have similar periods of restraint in the early spring to symbolize their concerns about the growth of their crops. But 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 Ba’Omer, the thirty-third day of the Omer.  (The Hebrew letters lamed and gimel which make up the acronym “Lag” have the combined numerical value of 33.) As a result, Lag Ba’Omer became a happy day, interrupting the sad­ness of the Omer period for twenty-four hours.

The talmudic explanation makes most sense when put into historical context. The outstanding sage Rabbi Akiva became an ardent supporter of Simeon bar Koseva, known as Bar Kokhba, who in 132 C.E. led a ferocious but unsuccessful revolt against Roman rule in Judea. Akiva not only pinned his hopes on a political victory over Rome but believed Bar Kokhba to be the long-awaited Messiah. Many of his students joined him in backing the revolt and were killed along with thousands of Judeans when it failed. The talmudic rabbis, still suffering under Roman rule and cautious about referring openly to past rebellions, may have been hinting at those deaths when they spoke of a plague among Akiva’s students. Possibly, also, Lag Ba’Omer marked a respite from battle, or a momentary victory.

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Shabbat as a Reminder of the Exodus

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Reprinted with permission from The Fourth Commandment, published by Bell Tower.

Exodus or Creation?

No mention of creation or God resting or the blessing the Sabbath received appears in the Shabbat commandment in the book of Deuteronomy. Instead, Moses states, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Eternal your God freed you from there… therefore the Eternal your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” This explanation appears somewhat removed from the day itself, not as closely tied to it as the other [which links it to the seventh day of creation on which God rests]. How does God’s freeing Israel from Egypt lead to sanctifying the Sabbath? 

the fourth commandmentThe answer unfolds in layers. To begin with, the image of God in this version of the commandment matches the image of God in the first commandment, which reads, “I the Eternal am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt….” This is a familiar God. This is the God who works through history, the God whose liberation of the Israelites from Egypt forms a central theme of the Bible and lies at the core of Jewish life. In addressing the Israelites shortly before his death, Moses is speaking to people who witnessed that liberation or heard about it directly from their parents or other family members.

For them, God as creator may seem remote. God as redeemer is the God they know. Calling up that aspect of the divine in the Sabbath commandment stirs in them memories of the slavery they suffered and God’s feats in delivering them from it. Observing the Sabbath God ordained is a way of memorializing their deliverance and honoring the deity who brought it about.

But in addressing the Israelites, Moses is also addressing generations to come, for as the Passover Haggadah teaches, every one of us must view ourselves as though we personally came out of Egypt. This version of the Sabbath command brings us, too, closer to the God we know most about, the God who freed our ancestors from oppression and who stands for justice and liberation.

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