Lag B'Omer and the Maypole

Lag B'Omer is a minor Jewish holiday falling on the eighteenth day of Iyar, the thirty-third day of the Omer. The festival celebrates mystical revelation, marks the death of the mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and also remembers the first fall of manna. It is often celebrated with bonfires. This year Lag b'Omer falls on the evening of May 26, and May 27.

I had the pleasure of dancing around a maypole yesterday in Central Park. (For those of you who haven't seen one, this is a pole stuck into the earth with brightly colored ribbons hanging from it.) The maypole has European pagan roots, and is a symbol of spring fertility, yet its spiritual message is also relevant to Jewish ways of being.

The maypole connects heaven and earth, just as mitzvot are meant to connect heaven and earth. The maypole dancers must weave under and over one another in perfect sequence for the maypole “weave” to be created. So too, as Hillel said, we must both stand up for ourselves and make room for others. When we do this in balance, our world is healthy and fair. Each dancer is connected to the maypole by a cord, just as each of us is connected to the Divine. The weaving of the maypole is a fun planting-season ritual, and it also encodes a powerful view of life in which all things are connected.

This message is relevant to the upcoming holiday of Lag B’Omer, the eighteenth day of the month of Iyar and the thirty-third day of the Omer. This day is celebrated with bonfires, and, in Israel, with pilgrimages to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Meron. Lag B’Omer, like many minor Jewish holidays, has a multiplicity of origins. In one view, it is the day when the students of Rabbi Akiva, who had been disrespectful of one another and been stricken with plague, were all healed. In a midrash by the Chatam Sofer, it is the day the manna, the heavenly food, fell for the Israelites for the first time. In Jewish mystical tradition it is the day Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai revealed the mystical secrets of the universe on his deathbed. And, in an ancient text called the book of Jubilees, the day before Lag B’Omer is the day on which the serpent convinced Eve to eat the forbidden fruit.

All of these stories relate to revelation that goes on, not between God and a nation, but within individuals. Rabbi Akiva’s students, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s students, the Israelites, and Eve must all “ingest” revelation and then pass it on to others. Unlike Shavuot, the grand wedding between God and Israel, between the Shekhinah and the people, Lag B’Omer celebrates moments of internal, mystical revelation that are transmitted in profound intimacy: by eating, or by one-on-one conversation. The bonfire of Lag b’Omer represents the flame of wisdom within the spirit.

All of the Lag b’Omer stories are powerful. I like best the idea that Lag b’Omer is the ‘day after’ the munching of the forbidden fruit. Suddenly, Eve and Adam have gone from being innocent to knowing…well, everything. They anticipate their own death, as well as their own fertility and creativity. What will they do with this inner revelation? Human history, with all its good and all its bad, is an attempt to respond to this powerful and terrifying knowledge. All subsequent revelations depend on this first one: the choice of Eve to know, to learn, to understand. We share Eve’s quest, and like her we have our own flashes of understanding about the truth of our lives. On Lag b’Omer, we celebrate that sense of inner knowing. Soon, when Shavuot comes, we will have to contemplate what we think about, and learn from, the revelation at Sinai. We will confront communal teaching, communal text. But first we must learn to trust our own visions and to respect others who are on the journey of insight.

This is why I think the maypole could be a good symbol for Lag b’Omer. The connection of heaven and earth is a reminder of Shimon bar Yochai’s revelation from heaven. The weaving of the ribbons would teach Rabbi Akiva’s students to respect one another. The brightly colored ribbons are like the manna falling from heaven. The “pole” as fertility symbol reminds us of Adam and Eve. And the dance in which our ribbons wind with all other ribbons reminds us of how revelation is meant to connect us, not divide us. We may not agree about what the Divine says, but the message of Lag b’Omer is to keep trying to communicate with the Shekhinah and with one another. As spring flourishes all around us, we too hope our inner truths will flower into bright new things.

Rabbi Jill Hammer is the founder of Tel Shemesh and the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women.

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