Relearning Lag BaOmer’s Importance

I am proud to be a Day School graduate. I toiled for nine years (eight really, but let’s count kindergarten) to earn that distinction. It was a mostly fun time — because it IS school after all and it won’t all be fun and games — where I can say I learned a lot about Judaism that I carry with me to this day.

Here’s where I thank my parents for spending the tuition to send me there. And where I apologize for what I’m about to write…

There are some things in my day school education that fell through the cracks. Shocking, I know. There’s only so much hard-drive space in my brain, and there are some things that just had to get moved out to make room for the truly important things: My wedding anniversary (Aug. 12), the kids’ birth dates (Dec. 7 and April 14), the Detroit Tigers 1984 starting rotation (Morris, Petry, Wilcox, Rozema and Berenguer), for example. You may scoff at that last one, but “useless” sports knowledge takes up an inordinate amount of space in my brain. I’m not apologizing for this.

One of those things is Lag BaOmer. I admit, at one time I was fairly well-versed in all the Jewish holidays, even the “lesser-known” ones. Hey, if it doesn’t appear in your standard calendar or calendar app, I’m hard-pressed to make a case for why it’s a thing people should know and, frankly, care about. Those of us in some public school districts have a hard enough time explaining why it’s wholly inappropriate for PTA meetings to be scheduled on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. Lag BaOmer is a discussion that I’m not starting.

But since it starts at sundown on May 25, I decided it was time to see how important it should be considered. Here’s what I do remember. Lag BaOmer marks the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer. That’s it. What it means or why it’s significant, I have no recollection. I could’ve gone to Google for an explainer. I opted for Rabbi Avi Olitzky instead.

“The 33rd day of the of the Omer marks the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, master teacher of the zohar and kabbalah,” said Rabbi Avi Olitzky. There’s also a Talmudic story that 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students died from a plague sent by God during the counting of the Omer because they didn’t respect each other. This commentary, Olitzky said, identified Lag BaOmer as the day the plague ended.

Olitzky said the main customs are: Haircuts and shaving, weddings, picnics, archery, bonfires and parties. “It’s a release during a season of restraint,” he said.

So is Lag BaOmer a more important holiday than I give it credit for? It depends. “If you don’t observe the Omer, to an extent it becomes irrelevant,” Olitzky explains. “In Israel it basically is the way Americans celebrate Memorial Day, sadly.

“When it’s not in the context of supporting our troops and concern for our past, Memorial Day becomes irrelevant to an extent too.”

So as with many things, religious or not, whether something is important or not is a matter of perspective. Am I sad that pieces of my day school education didn’t take root longer term? Not really. I do have many other things that I consider to be more pressing (and they have nothing to do with sports factoids). If nothing else, I get to take away why it was important enough to be taught at some point in my life, and of course, why it is still important to so many.