Pesach Sheni and Lag Ba’Omer

May 10, 2012

In the 49 day count-up from Pesach ( the Festival of Freedom) to Shavuot ( the Festival of The Giving of the Torah) there are two minor holidays -Pesach sheni ( the second Passover and Lag Ba’Omer ( the 33rd day of the Omer).

The origin of Pesach Sheni is in the Torah itself, in Numbers 9:7-14. We read that in the second year after the Exodus, there were people who were ritually unclean, who had come into contact perhaps with the dead, who came to Moshe and complained. Why should we miss out on celebrating Pesach?
Moshe told them to wait, whilst he asked HaShem what to command. Thus the institution of Pesach sheni celebrated on the 14th Iyyar was born. Just celebrated for one day, nowadays the only custom is not to say tachanun and to eat a slice of matzah. ( We still have plenty left over!)

It is interesting to note, that this minor festival was created specifically by the “unclean” and later by those who ” were far from Jerusalem”. Not a festival created by the prophets or holy men.

It teaches us, that HaShem in His great mercy always gives us a second chance. Even if you are unclean or far from the centre of Torah, you should never despair or give up.

And if you will ask, why Pesach? Normally if you have missed a mitzvah then that’s it. Too bad. If you didn’t hear the shofar on Rosh Hashana or sit in the sukka on sukkot then you can do it all winter if you want but it won’t help. You won’t fulfil a mitzvah.

I think that the answer is the Pesach is so basic and contains all the fundamental beliefs of Judaism. In fact, it contains everything. The belief in One God who created Heaven and Earth. The belief that He is still connected to the Earth and it’s inhabitants. He cares what they do and what happens to them. The belief in Reward and Punishment. In Divine Providence. In the destiny of the Jewish people. Etc etc

It is so basic and fundamental, that HaShem in His great kindness didn’t want anybody to miss out. And we still see to this day that the vast majority of Jews of all shades of belief and opinion still sit around a Seder table and celebrate a 3,300 year old festival which we Jews have given as inspiration to the world.

Lag Ba’Omer is the 33rd day of the counting of the period from Pesach to Shavuot and is on the 18th of he second month Iyyar.

Of rabbinic origin, it commemorates several things. During this period, from Pesach until Lag Ba’Omer, all the disciples (24,000) of Rabbi Akiva died! Some scholars read this as a coded way of saying that the fighters of Bar Kochba revolt, which Rabbi Akiva supported were defeated and wiped out, thus extinguishing the last flame of Jewish independence in the Land of Israel for a period of 1,800 years. In fact circa 135 CE was the last time that Jews raised arms until the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto towards the end of the Second World War.

But the Talmud says that they died because they did not treat each other with respect.

Another commemoration is the Yahrzeit (Hilulah) of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the author the Zohar. The Zohar is the basic textbook of Jewish mysticism, and it was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who revealed this to the world, though it was hidden and not widely read or distributed until the 15th century.

Lag Ba’Omer is known as the scholars holiday, when the children of the cheder and Talmud Torah would go to the forests with their teachers for picnics, armed with toy bows and arrows, to re-enact the talmidim of Rabbi Akiva who did the same when the study of Torah was banned unde pain of death, during the Hadrianic persecutions. They would study in the forests and when the Roman soldiers approached, would hide their books, take out their bows and pretend to be practicing archery!

Rabbi Akiva was asked why he endangered his life by continuing to teach Torah publicly. He answered with the famous parable of the fox who told the fish to join him on dry land to escape the fishermens nets! We are in danger in our own element, answered the fish, how much more so if we leave it. The Torah is our source of life, so leaving it would kill us as a people anyway.

What would you do as a Rosh yeshiva during a time of persecution, after all your pupils had died. Retire? Write a book? Give up?

But Rabbi Akiva went south and opened up a new yeshiva with 5 students. One of whom was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

Yochai, Rabbi Shimon’s father was a leading Jew, but his mother Sarah was barren. After several years his father decided to take a second wife, but on hearing this Sarah started to pray harder, and shed many tears that HaShem should give her a son to prevent this from happening.

That night Yochai had a dream. He was in a forest of dry, wasted trees. An old white bearded man came along with a jug of water and watered some of the trees. One tree he watered with a saucer. Some of the trees bore fruit but some did not. That night Sarah conceived. Later, Elijah the prophet appeared to Yochai and explained the dream and that they would have a son who would light up the world.
I understand, said Yochai, but what was he point of watering one tree with a saucer? He asked.
That barren tree, symbolised your wife Sarah, Elijah answered, and the water in the saucer were the tears she shed in prayer….

Here in Israel, bonfires are the order of the day, symbolising the yahrzeit light that one lights on he anniversary of a death. Today is of course Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s yahrzeit. Some say his birthday as well.
Barbecues, picnics and parades are taking place throughout the Land. It is estimated that about 400,000 people will have visited his tomb in Meron over the 24 hour period!

I often wondered why Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, merited such devotion and attention. There is no shortage of tombs of the prophets, tannaim ( teachers of the mishnayot) amoraim ( teachers of he Talmud). Even Maimonides’ grave not far away in Tiberius doesn’t get a tenth of the attention.

I’m not sure and am open to suggestions.

But, as stated, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, is the father of the Kabbalah and as such, revealed the hidden mystical side of the Torah of Moshe Rabbenu.

He is also the symbol of Jewish continuity, at a dark, dark time when the light of Judaism was close to be extinguished. The Second Temple was lying in ruins. The Bar Kocha revolt had failed. The roads were littered with Jewish corpses. But he took forward the teachings of his great teacher Rabbi Akiva to the next generation. Thus ensuring that both the Oral Law and the mystical side of the Torah wouldn’t be lost, enabling the Oral Law to be codified some years later by Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi in what we know as the Mishnah.

Good shabbes

Rabbi Meir Wise

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