(Below are the notes I took while listening to Prof. Leiman's lecture on Lag Ba-Omer (here). No one has reviewed my notes. All errors and inacurracies are my own. I strongly encourage you to listen to the original lecture in order to learn from the source and of course also because it's always a pleasure to hear Prof. Leiman's elloquence and delivery, no matter what the topic.)
The trouble with Jewish education is that we never move beyond the elementary level. We repeat the same thing year after year and never deepen our understanding of Torah . . . Same with holidays. The seder is the same year in year out. We should leave each year with a more profound understanding of Pesach. [He also makes an interesting point that leining has become more about catching the baal kore in a mistake than it using the opportunity to get a deeper understanding of the parsha.]
Yavamos 62b: R. Akiva taught if you study torah when you are young, study again when you are old. If you produce students in young age, produce more in old age (based on pasuk in kohelet, plant in the morning, don’t sit idle at night). He had 12,000 pairs of students from center to northern Israel, they all died in the same time period because they didn’t kavod to each other. R. akiva went to southern Israel and taught new students. This new group reestablished torah in Israel. The 24,000 died between pesach and shavuos.
Nothing here about lag ba-omer. Never mentioned in shas, tosefta, sifre, mekhilta. Not in rabbinic lit. it’s a mystery where LBO comes from. Not in mishne torah.
First reference to LBO is in Meiri (b. 1249 Provence): there is a kabala from geonim (rabbis who preceded him, not the Babylonian geonim) that the deaths ceased on LBO. (We commemorate this by not fasting. He doesn’t say to give kids off from school, shoot bow and arrow, etc.) Also don’t marry from Pesach till Lag Baomer.
r. hayyim vital (d. 1620, chief student of ari) in peri etz hayyim (published in 17th c.): the practice is to go to grave of shimon bar yohai and his son elazar) in meiron on LBO. The ari too went to meiron with his wife and children for 3 days (per testimony of r. yonasan sagiz). R. avraham halevi (beruchin), a kabbalist in ari’s circle, used to say nachem every day. He was davening at meiron on LBO and the ari approached him and told him that r. shimon bar yohai who is buried there told to ask r. avraham why is he saying nachem at his grave on his holiday. Because of this people will give him tanchumin. Within a month his child died, he sat shiva, and people came to give him tanchumim. We see from this the reason to go to meiron on LBO is because it is the yahrzeit of r. shimon bar yohai. He was one of the talmidim of r. akiva who died, but his death is a celebration.
So these are 2 basic answers for LBO. But they are problematic. LBO not mentioned in tanach, shas, etc.
All we have is the meiri, who says they stopped daying on LBO
There is ms. Variant in the gemara that doesn’t say pesach to atzeres, but pesach to pros (half) atzeres, ie lag baomer. This is what meiri was talking about.
Lets say the 24,000th died right before lag baomer. So you declare a yontef? A yontef because they stopped dying?
r. aryeh balhuver (shem aryeh, vilna, 1873): on LBO we don’t say tachanun and celebrate a bit because r. akiva’s students dying.
Its amazing, that gemara says they all died btw pesach and atzeres. So who cares that they stopped dying on lag baomer? I found in peri chadash (17th c. Sephardi), what’s the yontef? Nobody was left, they all died. (Should we make a yontef after the last of the 6 million died?)
so we are left with the answer that is yahrzeit of r. shimon bar yochai. Chasidim celebrate a yahrtziet by making a Kiddush so that the mitzvah of making beracha and the person who brings the shnops accrues to the benefit of the departed. But you don’t find this in shulchan aruch. Instead you find in shulchan aruch (siman taf kuf peh?) that you fast on yahrtzeit. (this is a minhag yisroel from gemera on.) and on yahrzeits of gedolei yisrael, like zayin adar for moshe rabbeinu, we fast.
So if moshe rabbeinu doesn’t get a yontef, why shimon bar yochai?
How do we know SBY’s yahrzteit is on LBO? We have nothing until the 17th c. in rabbinic literature (vital)
Hasam sofer (“he was shomer Shabbos in case you didn’t know, you can trust him”; d. 1830s): I heard people recently go to tzefas. He wonders why ppl go to tzefas and not yerushalayim, the holiest city. What’s the fuss? I asked R. epfraim zalman margoliyos (his rebbe) about this. Who heard of going to tzefas on LBO? Making a yontef on a yahrzeit? We fast on a yahrzeit. Like for moshe rabbeinu, nadav and avihu, Miriam (they fasted for a woman, ppl forget about this passage), yehoshua. It’s in the Zohar that it says the the day SBY died is a hilula. But it doesn’t say when he died. A hilula in loshn of gemara is a marriage. On the day he died he was married. How? His soul returned to hashem . . . ve-al kol panim, lo yadasi ma makom le-hilula?
The hasam sofer tells you he doesn’t know why we celebrate LBO. (how should I know?)
Hida (d. 1806) is unhappy with these 2 reasons for LBO: we make a simcha on LBO because he started teaching torah again on LBO.
A jew never despairs. R. akiva lost everything, his life’s work, he started all over again. He didn’t waste a minute. And one of his students was SBY
It’s a nice suggestion, but no evidence in earlier jewish lit
Others suggest real reason we mourn is because of crusades. Might be true. We know a lot of times jews were persecuted it was this period btw pesach and shavuos. In 11-13th centuries. Probably this has a lot to do with our mourning practices, no music, no shaving, etc. But no where in the sources does it say anything about crusades and LBO.
Others suggest it is because of hadrianic persecutions. No one has 24,000 students. Some achronim suggest that the 24k students are 24k troops that died in the mered bar kochva. But there is nowhere in jewish or roman sources to point to a celebration on LBO
A fragment in cairo geniza provides the source in SA for the yahrzeit fasts for moshe, Miriam, etc. 7-8th c., eretz yisroel. Goes month by month, and 18th of iyyar says fast for yahrtzeit of yehoshua.
So in 8th c. Israel, 18th iyyar, i.e., LBO was a fast day
Hasam Sofer (shut y”D resh lamed gimmel): but to make a holiday we know no miracle occurred on that day, and the holiday is never mentioned in shas, posekim, in no place. All it says in SA and rishonim is we don’t fast/say hespedim (some say no tachanun), but isn’t a holiday. And I don’t even know why it’s a day we don’t fast/eulogize.
The hasam sofer is correct. Everything we said is interesting, but just theories. We don’t have evidence. Anymore.
I’d like to close with favorite passage from sifre musar, which sums up what jewish education is all about
Bahya ibn pakida (hovos levavos): a person must make a reckoning with his soul for everthing that pertains to knowledge of god and god’s torah and the histories and tradition of the jewish people. And the meaning of the prayers and hymns we recite. These are all things we learn in youth when mind begins to grow and first initiated into studies.for the fofr of subtle ideas in the eyes of someone of weal understading is very different than in the eyes of an intelligent person. The stronger your understanding, the stronger becomes your certainty of things. Therefore don’t be content with what you learned in your youth at the beginning of your studies. But reconsider with what you were taught with regard to torah, neviim now that your mind is stronger, your understanding is sharper. As if you had never read a letter of them you never learned. Same with tefilos. Try to understand their language and purpose, so when you approach the lord with those words you will understand the words you tongue is uttering and the meaning your heart wishes to convey. Don’t allow the habits of your youth to continue. You have to deal the same way with jewish history and all jewish traditions. You may not be satisfied with you achieve when you began your studies, rather demand of yoursself to restudy, relearn, as if you are novice. Reconsider everything you are taught until you discover new meaning in the torah, prophets, sages. Such things you could have never have understood from the teachers who taught you when you first began your studies.
(On an 1841 visit to Meiron, click here.)