Lag BaOmer

by Jacques Abourbih

The Talmud relates that in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot a plague raged amongst the disciples of the great sage Rabbi Akiva “because they did not act respectfully towards each other”; these weeks are therefore observed as a period of mourning with various joyous activities proscribed by law and custom; (for instance weddings re not celebrated). On Lag BaOmer the dying ceased. Thus Lag BaOmer also carries the theme of Ahavat Yisrael, the imperative to love and respect one’s fellow. This is the Prime Directive of Rabbi Akiva, (to borrow a term from Star Trek).

Lag BaOmer also commemorates the passing of rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai (c. 100-160 CE), the Mishnaic sage and mystic, also a student of Rabbi Akiba After he provoked the wrath of the Roman authorities, he, together with his son Eleazar, hid in a cave for thirteen years. During that time it is said that they composed the Zohar, one of the fundamental work of Kabbalah, which many regard as the inner soul of the Torah that chart the sublime expanses of the divine reality, the processes of Creation, G-d’s relationship to our existence and the inner recesses of the human soul.

The legend of Rip van Winkle is likely modeled after that of R. Shimon. It is reputed that before R. Shimon entered the cave he saw a man planting a Carob tree. R. Shimon remarked to him that he would not live long enough to see the fruits of that tree. The man agreed, but said he was planting the tree for his children and grand children.

After emerging from his cave R. Shimon saw a man resting under that carob tree from his own labor of planting trees. R. Shimon inquired about the farmer who had planted the carob tree. The reply was that no one remembers who planted it, and the farmer in question had passed away along while ago. Whether R. Shimon asked himself “how long have I been asleep”, like Rip Van Winkle did, is conjectural.

The study of Torah has often become equated to that of planting a tree.