Teaching Lag B'Omer (Without Calling the Fire Department)

The first time I lived somewhere where things randomly started burning in the streets, I was a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh. The Steelers won the Superbowl, and the way for a group of rowdy undergrads to express their jubilation was by dragging mattresses out into the streets and setting them aflame. Good times.

The second time I lived somewhere where things randomly started burning in the streets, I was an olah chadasha [new immigrant] settling into life in Jerusalem. I had already gone through several holiday cycles, and had seen my share of weird stuff pop up in the streets - from people with seemingly no outdoor space constructing personal sukkahs on ledges to the group book dump that came when everyone did their pre-Passover cleaning. And then, for weeks following Pesach, piles of kindling started popping up on street corners and in empty lots. It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for a teenager to walk by, dragging a bunch of branches, or a 2x4, or a loose fence post, leaving me wondering where exactly they were foraging, and if everyone was on the same page about the destinations of these planks of wood.

And then, one night, the flames took over. Pillars of smoke and fire came from parks, and backyards, and it was only once I saw the extra busses heading for Mount Meron that I figured out that it was Lag B’Omer. As I’ve written about before, despite my near-constant Jewish educational pursuits, I was woefully ignorant of the Omer growing up, and that extends to its 33rd day. I’m assuming that I’m not alone in this, so below you’ll find my handy dandy list of fun facts, combined with ways to teach the Omer, all without accidentally committing arson.

  1. Lag B’Omer is literally the 33rd day of the counting of the omer. This year [2019], it falls on the evening of Wednesday, May 22 - Thursday, May 23. It’s significant because while Jews traditionally observe mourning practices during the omer, there’s a break from them on this day, and weddings and haircuts are allowed.

    The sefirot for Lag B’Omer are Hod within Hod, Humility within Humility. How can we be humble in our relationships? What does it mean to be humble about humility? Is there a mitzvah or service project you can do to live that value?

  2. Lag B’Omer is also significant because it’s the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and is said to be the day on which he revealed the deepest secrets of kabbalah in his mystical work, the Zohar.

    Use this holiday to delve into teaching kabbalah. Not the red strings version (or at least not just that), but the complex, bizarre, awesome world of Jewish mysticism. Or teach about Shimon bar Yochai - I personally love the stories about his time in the cave.

  3. The most well-known attribute of Lag B’Omer is the lighting of bonfires. There are numerous reasons for this. One is that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai requested it of his students, and it’s said that just as he gave spiritual light to the world through his teachings, bonfires are lit.

    How can your learners bring extra light into the world?

  4. Many Orthodox Jews refrain from cutting the hair of their baby boys until the age of three, when they get their hair cut, often on Lag B’Omer, and specifically at Mount Meron, the epicenter of celebrations.

    What are the ways that we mark moments of transition? Lag B’Omer generally falls right before summer breaks. Are there rituals we can create to mark newfound maturity, growth, and a transition into a new stage?

  5. Modern Zionists have re-appropriated Lag B’Omer, focusing on the Bar Kokhba rebellion and heroism in battle. Youth movements used the holiday as a time for hiking, camping, and reconnecting with the land of Israel through a lens of Jewish strength.

    Get outside! In most places, the weather is beautiful, and it’s a great time to reconnect with Jewish ties to nature and the physical world. A field trip, a hike, a picnic, a foraging trip - all great ways to honor the day.

And despite the title of this post, I’m in no way anti-bonfire. Just pro-fire safety. If you can find a space to safely light a flame, there’s nothing like a bonfire for dancing, singing, storytelling, and bonding. Chag Sameach!