Tonight is the (very) minor festival of Lag Ba’Omer. Lag Ba”omer is such a minor festival that no one really knows why we celebrate it. There are three theories (that may be connected in some way):
- Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 students who died because of a lack of respect between them and they stopped dying on Lag Ba’Omer. Therefore we celebrate.
- Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai died on Lag Ba’Omer. He is attributed with having written the Zohar, therefore we light big bonfires to make loads of light.
- The crusaders marauded the Jewish communities of France whilst on their way, during this period.
All of these expanations are pretty strange.
For the first one, 24,000 is a rather large number of students and it is kind of wierd that they would die because of disrespect when Rabbi Akiva is the big rabbi of loving your neighbor. What maybe gives us the clue to what really happened is that Rabbi Akiva was a supporter of the Bar Kokhva rebellion and it is just possible that the deal with the students dying is a code for Bar Kokhva’s soldiers being killed in battle together with either a statement that they jumped at the cahnce to be the first to go to battle without defering to each otehr or maybe a statement that if they were unsuccessful then that was because they still hadn’t learned the lesson of the destruction of the Temple that was attributed to being caused by sinat hinnam.
As for Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s jahrzeit, this is apparently very tenuous and a relatively new invention. What may be the connection is that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was a student of Rabbi Akiva (although after the supposed death of his 24,000 students), so maybe this is where the connection was made.
I have no idea whether the crusade explanation is historically correct, but it is possible that this was added in because of the existing tradition of the “students” of Rabbi Akiva killed by the plague/Romans.
Anyway it is all a good reason for a party.