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The Lag B'Omer Tragedy in Israel
Last uploaded : Friday 30th Apr 2021 at 14:09
Contributed by : Rabbi Alexandra Wright


Guest editorials are by tradition in a separate section on this website but this reflection below by Rabbi Alexandra Wright on the Lag B'Omer tragedy needed to be in our main editorial section. Although in a totally different context I could not help thinking of the Hillsborough disaster in Britain and how lives can so easily disappear in a human tragedy..
Carol Gould, Editor

30 April 2021

Today, the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer, should have been a day of rejoicing, the lifting of mourning customs that are traditionally observed during the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot.

Instead, today Israel is in mourning. One of the worst peacetime disasters in Israel has left at least 44 dead, including children, and 150 injured – all crushed at the site of the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose Yahrzeit is believed to fall on this day.

Lag B’Omer - the name comes from the numerical values for the Hebrew letters lamed (30) and gimel (3) - is a minor festival in the Jewish calendar, celebrated with outings, picnics and bonfires, a kind of Jewish May Day. In Israel, ultra-orthodox Jews make an annual pilgrimage to the tomb of the 2nd century CE Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the northern Israeli village of Meron.

Although some medieval authorities, such as Maimonides, seem unaware of it, the seven weeks of the Omer period, or part of it, are mandated as a time of mourning. Traditionally, marriages do not take place, Orthodox Jews do not have their hair cut or attend musical events.

The reasons for mourning seem obscure. The Talmud gives the most frequent explanation. The second-century scholar, Rabbi Akiva, had twenty-four thousand disciples, all of whom died during the period between Pesach and Shavuot – she’lo nahagu k’vod zeh el zeh – ‘because they were not accustomed to show respect each to the other’ (bKetubbot 62b). The Talmud goes on to say that they all died of askarah – identified today as diptheria, a particularly cruel death. But on Lag B’Omer, the plague came to an end – hence the reason for the hillulah – the celebration.

There are other reasons given for the origin of the mourning period – folk customs that required suspension of celebratory occasions at a critical time in the agricultural year when farmers were anxious about the outcome of their crops. Some connect this period of abstinence with Lent and its pagan precursors, with a lifting of that anxiety around the beginning of May.

The celebration that should have taken place at Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s tomb is a time of festivity and joy. Pious Jews visit the grave because they believe their prayers are more likely to be answered. Parents bring their three-year-old sons for their first haircut; there is singing and dancing and great merriment.

Israel has come out of its lockdowns; its restaurants and shops are open, social and cultural events have resumed and the hillulah was probably the largest gathering that had taken place for a long time.

Rabbinic authorities have not always given their approval to this celebration. In the past, some thought it was an inappropriate way to honour the memory of Bar Yochai, others have attacked it because some of the participants have the custom of throwing expensive clothes into bonfires, violating the principle of bal tashchit – do not destroy or waste.

Whatever we feel about Lag B’Omer and its festivities, a tragedy has occurred. Some families will be returning to their homes without a loved one; others will be traumatised by the crush that occurred in the dark on the eve of the festival. In their lives, the day will always be associated with the tragedy of death and injury.

The commander of the Israel Police Northern District accepted full responsibility: ‘I'll put things on the table, I, Shimon Lavie, the commander of the Israel Police Northern District, bear full responsibility, for better and worse,’ he is reported to have said.

Such painful honesty in the face of this deadly tragedy should command our approbation. No leader should be afraid of accepting responsibility. It takes courage and integrity, and many leaders could learn from a man who must be examining his conscience in the light of what happened yesterday.

Shabbat shalom.

Alexandra Wright is the Senior Rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, St John's Wood, London.


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