by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Today we celebrate Lag BaOmer, which is the thirty-third day of the Omer that I described two weeks ago.
In Israel, thousands make the pilgrimage to the town of Meron in the Galil on Lag Ba’Omer every year to celebrate the anniversary of the death of Shimon Bar Yochai. They couldn’t last year because of Covid. But they will make up for it this year. There is no objective evidence whatsoever that this date is accurate, but no matter. He was and is one of the most important figures in Judaism and the fourth most quoted scholar in the Talmud. Prophetic mysticism predated him by a thousand years. But thanks to The Zohar, the seminal book of the Kabbalah, he is universally regarded as the father of Jewish mysticism.
He resisted the Roman bans on teaching Torah during the Second Century and had to go into hiding with his son. For twelve years they hid in a cave camouflaged by a carob tree that, together with a spring of water, sustained them. The story goes that Elijah appeared to tell them that they could leave because the Roman Emperor who wanted their death had died. They came out. Rebbi Shimon looked around with disbelief at all the people working in the fields instead of studying the word of God, and he burnt them to a cinder. A heavenly voice protested, “You are going to destroy my world, go back into the cave until you can adjust to normal life.” And they did, for another year, to cool down. The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) is very clear. Such extremism has no place in our world! And yet perhaps that is why he has become such a central figure in mysticism today, because too many of the present crop of so-called or would-be Kabbalists are also absolutely not suited for this world.
Meron, in the Galil, was the settlement he lived in two thousand years ago. Soon after the State was founded, my father went there on Lag BaOmer and was overwhelmed and inspired by the atmosphere. And when I first went there in the late 1950s I was too. It was a wonderful experience, of popular mystical joy, celebration, and unity. All groups and sects within traditional Judaism joined together and danced around huge bonfires of and in religious ecstasy. Today it has become the Bonfires of Vanities.
Shimon Bar Yochai must have been a very complex character and I am sure would have felt very much at home in today’s extreme wings of Orthodox Judaism. Apart from burning up other Jews, he didn’t approve of, he also said some very nasty things about women and non-Jews. “The best of the idol-worshippers should be killed, the best of snakes should have their heads cut off (he probably meant disloyal Jews) and the most pious of women are witches” (Midrash Mechilta BeShallach). Come to think of it, I know some of his admirers today who still think that way.
The festive aspect of Lag BaOmer was the innovation of the mystics of Safed, most famously Yitzchak Luria, the Ari, and his amanuensis Chaim Vital. Initially, it was a Sephardi event, known as the Hillula de Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai with special songs and festive meals to celebrate him. They also introduced the custom of letting a boy’s hair grow for three years and then cutting it at Rebbi Shimon’s tomb at Meron. They called the ceremony the Haluka and distributing candies and cakes. The European Jews marked Lag BaOmer with bonfires and bows and arrows, probably a nod towards the Jewish rebels who fought against Romans (or as some suggested metaphorically as fighting the evil inclination).
As more and more Chassidim came to Israel in the nineteenth century, to use the fashionable term, they were guilty of cultural appropriation and began to add their own weird customs. They renamed the Haluka the Yiddish Opsheer or Upsheer, depending on who you are talking to. The Bobov Hassidic dynasty, somewhere around 1912 claimed that if one donates Chai Rotel, eighteen measures called a Rotel, in memory of Shimon Bar Yochai at Meron you would be blessed with wealth and childless couples would soon have children. The Rotel, by the way, was an Ottoman measurement they called Rotolo. Nowadays most people think it is Yiddish! Another Hassidic dynasty, the Sadigura, actually managed to buy the tomb from its Sephardi guardians, so that nowadays, its descendants always light up the main bonfire.
As the numbers of the pious of all denominations have increased, so has Meron, from a sleepy village to a center of a huge pilgrimage of people seeking blessings and cures. And from being a wonderful spiritual event, it has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with the materialism, superstition, and politicization that has infected our religious communities.
Meron now is a claustrophobic showbiz event, with VIP rooms, private suites, and personal access. With every minor Rebbe, Rabbi, and charlatan showing off his entourage and influence. Every politician wants to curry favor making a point of being seen and they rub shoulders with corrupt oligarchs, Mafiosi, outwardly religious or secular businessmen desperate to be seen. Perhaps eager to catch a little bit of the mystical stardust that will bring them blessings and wealth regardless of whatever crimes or abuses they may be guilty of. It is a materialist charade every bit as demeaning and empty as the Oscars. So that only by withdrawing to the periphery can one get a sense of the spiritual majesty of the genuine mysticism that it is supposed to represent.
Lag BaOmer ought to remind us of the importance of kabbalah and the need, to go back to the mystical experiences that empower individuals to find their ways to God. It can help bring back many who feel alienated from formal, conformist Judaism back to the fold. It has always been passionate, rebellious, and individualistic with all the benefits and dangers of misuse and abuse that go with it.
We must reclaim mysticism, genuine mysticism, not the popular new age nonsense that passes for it too often. Of course, established religion doesn’t appreciate individuality. All the more reason to advocate it!
Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.