During the seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot, Leviticus 23:15-16 commands us, we are to count the Omer (Sefirat Ha'omer). For the 49 days leading up to Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates the giving of Torah to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai, we say a daily blessing and count the Omer in both weeks and days. On the 16th day, for example, we would say, “Today is 16 days, which is two weeks and two days of the Omer.” The festival of Shavuot is observed on the 50th day.
In Hebrew, each letter of the alphabet has a numeric equivalent. The term “Lag BaOmer” represents the Hebrew letters lamed (whose numeric equivalent is 30) and gimmel (whose numeric equivalent is three), and the word omer, which means “barley sheaf.” Lag is not really a word, but rather a contraction of lamed and gimmel, whose numeric equivalent totals 33. Thus, Lag BaOmer is a shorthand way of saying “the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer.”
The period during which we count the Omer is considered a time of mourning as we recall a plague that killed thousands of students of Rabbi Akiva, a Talmudic scholar. Jews traditionally avoid hosting parties, listening to music, and taking part in other joyous celebrations during the Omer. Lag BaOmer, the day the plague ceased, provides a one-day respite as the customs associated with grief are abandoned and replaced with ones of great joy, including wedding ceremonies. Large bonfires, which some equate with the light of Torah, are often lit on Lag BaOmer, serving as the focal point of celebrations of the day. In some Israeli communities, children have their first haircut on Lag BaOmer.
Lag BaOmer is also a time for soul-searching, for pouring out our hearts to the Almighty, and for aspiring to incorporate greater meaning in our lives. So much of Judaism allows for interpretation – what we call midrash – and encourages Jews to find meaning for ourselves, based on historical fact, as well as reasons and ways to celebrate. In other words, we are allowed to add our individual touch to our Jewish observances in order to add greater personal meaning to them.
Some ascribe to the idea that the Jews became physically free on Passover, but spiritually free on Shavuot – that something happened during that in-between time.
Think of it: All that wandering through the wilderness as our ancestors hiked in the desert and found their way? It must have been quite an experience. And yet, it wasn’t just the literal idea of getting from Egypt to the Promised Land that drove them to carry on. Ultimately, they were driven, too, by the idea of receiving and accepting the Torah, and by the opportunity to examine and apply their faith. Indeed, their wandering was a spiritual finding of their way.
We, too, are always in the process of finding our way, a lifetime journey that we share with our ancestors. Every time we say a prayer, praise God, or ask for forgiveness, we are finding our way. Every moment that we live and love– with all the challenges they present – we are finding our way. Sometimes we do it with our community, sometimes with a spouse, a loved one, a peer; and sometimes, finding our way has to be done alone.
Sometimes, it’s easier to give than to receive. When we are given love, understanding, and acceptance, we may feel that accepting it suggests weakness or dependency. But consider this: Our foremothers and forefathers not only had the strength and fortitude to take God’s precious gift, they also had the ability to accept it into their lives forever – no longer defined by Egypt, limited only by the size of their dreams and the depth of their faith.
And so, somewhere between the beginning of counting of the Omer and the big day on Mt. Sinai comes Lag BaOmer. As day 33 in the count, it is the symmetry that captivates – one 3 for deliverance from Egypt, one 3 for acceptance of our precious Torah. And the challenge of finding our way – from one day, one numeral, one holiday to the next – remains our responsibility, our heritage, and our legacy as Jews.
Howard and Lauren Lev are members of Temple B’nai Torah in Wantagh, N.Y., where Howard currently serves on the temple's rituals committee. Howard is a theatre professional who has worked on a number of Broadway and off-Broadway shows, including the national tour of The King & I; Lauren is a direct marketing/advertising executive and teaches advertising and marketing communications courses at the Fashion Institute of Technology, LIU Post and SUNY Old Westbury. They have two children.