Lag B’Omer began the evening of May 11. As the community and the country await the end of the pandemic, it is difficult not to view the holiday with a renewed and very tangible significance.
“While a lot of people have heard of Lag B’Omer,” said Rabbi Chai Posner of Beth Tfiloh Congregation, “people are probably more familiar with the celebration than they are the meaning behind them and behind the celebration.”
One explanation of Lag B’Omer’s origins is that the day marks the end of a deadly contagion. “There’s a tradition that Rabbi Akiva’s students died during this time between Pesach and Shavuot,” Posner said. “They say that 12,000 pairs of students died from a plague that afflicted them, the Talmud says, because they weren’t treating each other with respect. And there’s a tradition that the plague stopped on the 33rd day of Omer, Lag B’Omer.”
Another explanation is that the holiday marks the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who was considered a sage and the author of the kabbalistic text the Zohar, Posner said.
The title of the Zohar translates to “fire.” While this would explain why Lag B’Omer is typically celebrated with a bonfire, this year, the first tradition hits especially close to home.
While large communal bonfires are out of the question at present, Beth Tfiloh had no intention of allowing COVID-19 to dampen the celebration, as the shul hosted an online community concert with Yonina, an Israeli-American husband-and-wife musical duo on May 11.
“Their music, they do very beautiful harmonies, the two of them,” Posner said. “So it just felt, it had that whole feel of a concert sitting around a bonfire. We felt that was the best we could give people for this year.”
As Lag B’Omer is a day for parties and music, Posner said that in a normal year, Beth Tfiloh would have organized something like that.
“We wanted to look at what we could do this year to have that feel to it,” he said.
Other synagogues that hosted Lag B’Omer celebrations this year included Beth Am Synagogue and Harford Chabad.
Beth Am held its “Lag BaOmer Beit Cafe” on May 12. The event was designed as a community talent show, and called for volunteers to share their talents at music, comedy, art, and poetry, “to just kind of let our hair down a little bit together in the midst of this difficult global moment,” said Beth Am’s Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg.
Harford Chabad held a Zoom bonfire for kids on May 12. Participants roasted marshmallows at their homes while singing songs over Zoom and discussing the meaning of Lag B’Omer.
“For me personally,” said Harford Chabad Rabbi Kushi Schusterman about Lag B’Omer, “it’s a day of celebration of the secrets of the Torah becoming revealed in the world, and accessible to all.”