1 Tishrei
Autumn Equinox
Rosh HaShanah

11 Cheshvan
Rachel's Death

1 Tevet
Winter Solstice

15 Shevat
Festival of Trees

1 Nisan
Spring Equinox

18 Iyar
Lag B'Omer
Torah and Manna

1 Tammuz
Summer Solstice
Mourning Jerusalem

15 Av
Tu B'Av
Harvest Dancing

The Leaf

The 33rd day of the Omer, the period of counting forty-nine days between the spring liberation festival of Passover and the spring/summer revelation holiday of Shavuot, is Lag B'Omer. (“Lag” is a combination of Hebrew letters adding to 33.) Lag B'Omer, the 18th of the month of Iyar, according to Jewish mystical tradition, is a wedding between heaven and earth. It comes in April or May, at a time when spring is in full bloom, and mating calls fill the air. The many legends associated with Lag B'Omer all have to do with the meeting of mystical or spiritual mysteries with the earthly realm. Seventeen days before the revelation on Mount Sinai, Jews celebrate Lag B'Omer with bonfires, dancing, archery contests, the cutting of hair, and often with weddings as well, rejoicing in the joining of the earthly and heavenly realms.

Lag B'Omer is about linking: heaven to earth, human to Divine, one person to another. Like the rain, the water that comes from heaven, Lag B'Omer reminds us of the unseen cycle of which we are all a part. The 18th of Iyar is a moment of union par excellence, signifying the knowledge that all of us are leaves on one tree of life.

Iyar photo

“I saw a tree of great height in the midst of the earth. The tree grew and became mighty. Its top reached to heaven, and it could be seen from all the ends of the earth. Its leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and there was food for all in it.” —Daniel 4:7-9

Element: Gateway from Air into Water
Direction: South-East
Angel: Nuriel
(angel of fire, also ruler over rain and storms)
Sefirah: Netzach/Hod
(eternity and glory, realms of prophecy)


The Story of the Season


Lag B’Omer is the thirty-third day of the counting of the Omer, which literally means “sheaf of barley.” In biblical times, a sheaf of barley was put aside during each of the forty-nine days between the second day of Passover and Shavuot. On the fiftieth day, Shavuot, an offering of bread was made at the Temple, in gratitude for the earth’s abundance. In rabbinic and post-rabbinic times, when there was no Temple, Jews marked this period by counting the days of the Omer, to remember the growth of the grain at that time of year. On Shavuot, loaves of new wheat bread were brought as an offering to God.

“The voice of God in power”— this verse means that at Sinai God spoke to each individual according to his or her ability: the young, the old, and the children. God said to Israel: Do not believe that there are many deities in heaven because you have heard many voices, but know that I alone am the Eternal your God.
—Exodus Rabbah 29:1

Lag B’Omer is connected both to biblical legends and tales about the sages. One tradition about Lag B'Omer, started by the Chatam Sofer (an 18th century German rabbi) is that it was the day that the manna first fell from heaven. According to this scholar, the people of Israel finished the unleavened bread (matzah) that they had taken with them when they left slavery in Egypt on the fifteenth of Iyar (one month after Passover), and went hungry for three days. Then the Holy One sent down the manna, the heavenly bread, and it miraculously appeared in the wilderness. The people gathered it daily, and on Friday a double portion fell so that they did not need to gather it on the Sabbath. According to some rabbinic midrashim, the manna tasted like all things, any delicious thing anyone wanted to eat. Some said it tasted like mother's milk. One connected between the “omer” and the manna is that an “omer” (a measurement) of manna was, according to tradition, kept in the Temple as a reminder of the miracle. The manna represents the fertility and creativity of heaven, given to the world as a Divine gift.

The taste of the manna was as a cake baked with oil. Rabbi Avuha said: Do not read “leshad”(cake) but “shad” (breast). Just as an infant finds many flavors in the breast, so did Israel find many flavors in the manna as they were eating it. Some say “le-shad” means a demon: even as the demon changes into many colors, so did the manna change into many tastes.
—Talmud, Yoma 75a

Lag B'Omer also celebrates two tales of teachers and students. Firstly, it honors the end of a plague that killed many of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva's students, whom legend says brought about the plague through their disrespect for one another. The end of the plague signifies the return of kindness and mutual respect to scholarly dialogue. Lag B’Omer is also a reminder of the conflict between Rabbi Akiva’s students and the Roman authorities —when the Romans forbade Torah study, the students would study in secret in the forest, pretending they were hunting with bows and arrows (thus the archery contests on Lag B’Omer). Secondly, this day marks the death-date of the sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and the day on which he revealed the mystical work called the Zohar to his disciples, accompanied by fire from heaven. The Zohar is a medieval Jewish mystical work that explored the sefirot (facets of God), the Divine masculine and feminine, the four elements, the metaphors for divinity hidden within biblical text, the relationship between nature and the holy, and many other mystical concepts. The teacher-student relationship and the revelation of mystical wisdom also represent the gift of Divine creativity and fecundity.

Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students...and all of them died in one period of time because they did not conduct themselves with respect towards one another...”
—Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 62b

According to legend, bar Yochai knew the secrets of the upper worlds, and went on revealing them up to the moment of his death—even the sun refused to set until he had finished speaking. On this day Jews gather at Meron, the mountainous place where the tomb of bar Yochai stands, and circle it, lighting bonfires in celebration of the sage’s mystical wisdom and the sun that refused to set. They cut the hair of three-year-old boys for the first time, just as according to biblical law trees are not harvested until three years have passed, as an offering to the Creator. The celebrants throw the hair, as well as the garments of people who are in need of help or healing, into the flames of the fire. At the grave, they celebrate a wedding between heaven and earth.

“to what can we compare your word
beloved it is like flying sparks
running through the four worlds…”

—Alicia Ostriker

How did Lag B'Omer get to be a wedding between heaven and earth? Perhaps because of the following story:

[Shimon bar Yochai and his son criticized the Roman authorities for the government’s self-serving actions and as a result, became fugitives. They ran away and hid in a cave. ] “A miracle occurred and a carob tree and a well of water were created for them. They would strip their garments and sit buried up to their necks in sand, and studied the whole day. When it was time for prayers, they robed, prayed, and then put off their garments again so that they should not wear out. Thus they dwelt twelve years in the cave. Then Elijah came and stood at the entrance to the cave and said: ‘Who will tell the son of Yochai that the emperor is dead and his decree annulled?’

So they emerged. Seeing a man plowing and sowing, they cried: “They forsake eternal life and engage in the worldly life of here and now!" Whatever they looked at was immediately burned up. A heavenly voice came forth and cried. ‘Have you emerged in order to destroy my world? Go back into your cave.’ So they returned and dwelt there twelve months... A heavenly voice then came forth and said: "Go forth from your cave.”

“On the eve of the Sabbath, before sunset, they saw an old man holding two bundles of myrtle and running at twilight. “What are these for?'

“They are in honor of the Sabbath," he replied.

“But isn’t one enough?’

“One is for remembering the Sabbath, and one for keeping the Sabbath [in honor of the two sacred phrases, 'honor the Sabbath' and 'keep the Sabbath.”'

Said Rabbi Shimon to his son, ‘See how precious the commandments are to Israel.’ And their minds became peaceful.”

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son are zealots—they only want the life of the spirit, and ignore the life of the body, burying their bodies in sand while they study sacred text. When they emerge from the cave, their spiritual extremism causes them to reject the life of the world—the sowing and reaping humans must do in order to live. They spread fire, destructive spiritual energy, all around them. The heavenly voice—literally, the “daughter-voice”—orders them to go back into the cave and stop destroying the world. When they emerge again, they are faced with a man who combines the physical—the sweet-smelling leaves of the myrtle—with a deep respect for the spiritual realm of the Sabbath. The two men see how nature can be wound together with spirit, and they become peaceful. This story too is about the union of heaven and earth. Shimon bar Yochai and his son reject Roman excess, and with it, the natural world. In the womb-like cave of God, they learn once again to respect both body and spirit. The man with two twigs of myrtle (commonly a plant used when dancing at weddings) reminds them of the sacred marriage of the eternal with the here and now. So too, the mystics celebrate this day as a time of union between the Holy One and the Shekhinah. On 1 Nisan, the Divine emerges into the world, and on Lag B’Omer we meet the Divine in sacred dance.

R. Shimon was sitting and studying the Torah during the night when the bride was to be joined to her husband. For we have been taught that all the “members of the bridal palace,” during the night preceding the Shekhinah’s espousals are in duty bound to rejoice with her in her final preparations for the great day: to study all branches of the Torah— from the law to the prophets, from the prophets to the writings, and then to the deeper interpretations and the mystical wisdom— for these represent her adornments. The bride with her bridesmaids comes up and remains with them, adorning herself at their hands and rejoicing with them all that night, and on the following day She enters the chuppah in their company
—Zohar I, 8a

Steps of the Season


Lag b'Omer makes the transition from air to water. Air is freedom; water is emotion and connection. In Jewish lore, water represents Torah, or wisdom, prophecy, and study. The early summer is a time to begin to deeply connect to others and to the Divine, recalling the covenant between the Eternal and us, between the Creator and all life.

Seventeen days after Lag B'Omer, on the 6th of Sivan, the major biblical holiday of Shavuot arrives. The Omer, with its mystical journey through forty-nine Divine attributes, is over. Shavuot celebrates the wheat harvest, and is called Chag haBikkurim, holiday of first fruits. Shavuot also recalls the revelation at Sinai, when God gave the Torah to the Jewish people. The Zohar imagines Sinai as the moment of marriage between God and human beings, between the transcendent Holy One and the immanent Shekhinah. Shavuot is celebrated with greenery placed around the synagogue, with festive meals and special prayers and poems, and with the reading of the story of revelation from the Torah scroll. In some Sephardic congregations, a “wedding contract” is read announcing the marriage agreement between God and Israel.

Another Shavuot tradition, called leil tikkun or “night of repair” is to stay up all night on the first night of Shavuot, studying Torah and other sacred texts and symbolically accompanying the bride (the Torah, or the Shekhinah) to her wedding canopy. Legend says that on the night of Shavuot, the sky opens, and all prayers offered at that moment will go straight to heaven. The “tikkun” or repair is a bringing together of opposites—heaven and earth, male and female, the imperfect world and the heavenly realm—into a whole.

In the Temple, two loaves of bread were offered on Shavuot—the sign of the barley harvest’s end, and the reminder that we must work together with the God of nature to create nourishment for ourselves. The Talmud teaches: “As with a breast, however often the child sucks, it finds milk, so too with words of Torah. As often as one studies them, one finds nourishment in them.” Israel turns the nourishment of Torah into new insights year after year.

Sivan is a time of reconciliation. Whatever problems one may have with Jewish tradition, however one may have quarreled with the Torah, Shavuot invites us to rejoice in the wrestling, in the process of interpretation.

On Shavuot, the Torah is a lady behind veils, who tempts us to look beneath what is obvious and uncover the secrets we have been seeking. Though we often think of Torah as carved in stone, in Jewish texts Torah is compared to water, and its interpretations flow in new ways in each generation.

Yet, like the spring, this vitality and purity is finite. When the month of Sivan is over, Tammuz begins. The height of summer arrives, and the light of the sun begins to wane. The half-year of darkness has begun. The first of Tammuz represents the transition from perfect and joyful union to the knowledge of our brokenness.


Other Paths


Lag B’Omer is one of many spring “marriage” festivals around the world that fall at the mid-spring season. The Babylonian “sacred marriage” of Ishtar and her consort was performed around this time, and African fertility festivals when field are sowed, such as Mawu, take place now as well. Lag B’Omer generally falls near Beltane, the first of May, the Celtic holiday of revelry and sensuality— Beltane also is celebrated with bonfires and with sacred marriage between heaven and earth, between God and Goddess. The Romans also celebrated the flowering of earth on the first of May, honoring the goddess Maia. Like these holidays, Lag B’Omer celebrates the Shekhinah, who is the sum total of our being, as a passionate bride in union with Tiferet, the Holy One, the heavenly and regal Divine.


Ideas for Celebration


We can celebrate Lag B’Omer in an earth-based way by lighting bonfires and circling them in dance and song, or by going into the forest to experience the growth of the spring. One traditional practice is to throw cut hair or clothing into the fire as an offering to the Divine, to remind ourselves that growth requires the willingness to change. Lag b’Omer is also a good time to study mystical texts that reveal new faces of the Divine to us. And, if appropriate, Lag B’Omer is an ideal time to celebrate a wedding, a friendship, or a new enterprise.

Lag B’Omer represents the entry into water, which is sacred story. Another way to mark this sacred time is to go to a ritual bath (mikvah) or natural body of water and immerse three times, meditating on the watery womb of the Shekhinah that enfolds us, for it is written that “God is the mikvah of Israel.”

The period of Tishrei to Shavuot represent the coming to fullness of the holy within us. After Shavuot, the year will descend into a period of destruction, so that it may emerge into new life again. This period begins with the first of Tammuz and the summer solstice.

Jill Hammer


Lag B’Omer at a Basement Drum Circle

the world is like a cave
a gray cave, a womb
the world is like a grave

we scoop out handfuls of air
in empty space we make
a door for the seed of fire

in the hollows of the drums
we are the circle of flame
our skirts are burning the holy page

a woman is dancing with two scarves
life and death whipping around one another
banners blown on opposite winds

the drum is the infant heart
and the grave of earth
our bones are the resurrected dead whirling within us

the mystics have escaped to heaven
and we scream after them
a search party with torches

the moon gathers her cloak of deep
black knowledge around her
the heat of the bonfires lets out her breast

the wind steps backward and vanishes
the volcano of silk scarves
crumples to the center

—Jill Hammer


[1] The 18th of Iyar is one of the few days during the Omer, a semi-mourning period, when weddings (and haircuts) are permitted. Back to [1]

[2] Leviticus 23:15-16. Back to [2]

[3] An ancient rabbinic tradition in Esther Rabbah (7:11) set the date of the manna's fall as the 15th of Iyar, commonly known as Pesach Sheini (second Passover). This was a day, in Temple times, on which individuals who had been traveling or impure during Passover could offer their Passover sacrifice. However, the Chatam Sofer (Responsa, Yoreh Deah 236) preferred to connect the fall of manna to the Lag B’Omer holiday, and apparently everyone else does too, because most modern sources quote the Chatam Sofer and not the ancient legend. Back to [3]

[4] Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 75a; Exodus Rabbah 28:2. Back to [4]

[5] Exodus 15:21. Back to [5]

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 62b; Arukh haShulchan. Back to [6]

[7] See Maimonides, Hilchot Melachim 11, for a description of Akiva’s quarrel with Rome. Back to [7]

[8] According to historians, the Zohar was written in 13th century Spain by a small group of mystical innovators, but some traditional Jews believe it was dictated by bar Yochai a thousand years before, during the Talmudic period. This material is from Zohar III, 296b. Back to [8]

[9] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 33b. Back to [9]

[10] I Zohar 2a ff. Back to [10]

[11] See Waskow, Arthur. Seasons Of Our Joy (Beacon Press, 1991). Back to [11]

[12] Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 54b. Back to [12]

[13] Jeremiah 17:12. Back to [13]

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