It has become a day for weddings and haircuts, but Lag B’Omer is really so much more. At this point in the year, we are all counting Sefirah, hopefully in an uninterrupted fashion, fulfilling the rather simple mitzvah of reciting the berachah and counting the consecutive days from 1 to 49. It’s pretty easy and only takes about a minute or so.
Of course, this will all culminate in a few weeks with the observance of Shavuos, the celebration of the actual giving of the Torah to the post-exile Jewish nation gathered at Sinai in awe-inspiring style.
Many years ago, when I was a young child, we had a day off on Lag B’Omer, a tradition that pretty much continues today. Don’t misunderstand if you are a yeshiva student — on Lag B’Omer you are in school, but the schedule is usually reworked so while you are physically in yeshiva, there is a dramatic departure from the daily routine.
That said, let me share with you the time that I marched in a Lag B’Omer parade in one of those in-but-out-of-school experiences that for some reason remains vivid in my mind.
My guess is that I was 10 years old, in fourth or fifth grade, depending on how smart I want you to think I was when I was a kid. So let’s say fifth grade because that is what I think it was in reality.
We were living in Crown Heights and my class was lined up on Kingston Avenue near Eastern Parkway waiting for our cue to begin marching along the parkway. The only thing was that it was raining quite steadily, and ten-year-olds usually don’t carry umbrellas so we were getting soaked.
As I recall, the parade organizers were saying that because of the inclement weather there was a chance that the Lag B’Omer parade festivities would not be able to proceed and would have to be postponed or called off. The good news was that if it was called off we would not be marching and would be able to go home.
My recollection is that it was Rabbi JJ Hecht at the podium who asked us as we stood in the rain to sing the song “U’faratztah” and to have in mind that the clouds should spread and move away, allowing the sun to shine through on the thousands gathered. The Biblical reference to “U’faratztah” is about Hashem promising that our forefathers’ progeny will be spread out to the south, north, east, and west.
As far as those words’ relationship with the clouds, the idea was to use our collective thought process and singing to get the rain to stop and the clouds to disperse. So we are standing in the rain, singing this song, I suppose in the spirit of Lag B’Omer.
Along with my classmates, I’m standing there, probably wondering to myself when they will finally give up and let us go home. But then to my juvenile bemusement, the sky slowly began to brighten. After a few more moments, the rain began to dissipate and then stop completely. Up above us in the sky, the clouds began to move around wildly and a baseball-sized hole appeared to be punching its way through.
And then the sun came out from behind the clouds. Rabbi Hecht announced excitedly that our singing and focus accomplished what looked impossible a half-hour earlier. We began to march through small puddles and lots of sunshine.
The next part of this Lag B’Omer analysis might be considered a bit cynical, though it seems to ring quite true and accurate. And that is the fact that it seems that over the years, Sefirah has shrunk, or at least the days of strict observance are somewhat reduced.
We are still counting 49 days, a full seven weeks according to the mandate, but it looks like someone along the line took the liberty to play around with the math as it relates to the seven-week countdown, or rather count-up.
So aside from the fact that we count the days following Ma’ariv each night, how do we otherwise know in the course of any given day that it is Sefirah? The obvious answer is that people around us during this period do not take haircuts, many do not shave (if they shave regularly), we do not listen to uplifting music (and many don’t listen to any music at all), and there are no wedding celebrations. In other words, it is a period of mourning and is observed as such.
In reality, however, only 33 of the 49 days are observed in this way. Some who subscribe to the customs as written by the Ari, zt’l, maintain these strict customs and policies for the full seven weeks. The Mishnah Berurah, however, writes that since the students of Rebbe Akiva died in large numbers over a 33-day period, it is only incumbent upon us to observe these or, for that matter, any of the 33 days (consecutively) in this 49-day period.
Lost in all these calculations is that we are counting our days to the great watershed event of receiving the Torah at Sinai. If your only thought is about when you can turn on your car radio or when you can finally take a haircut, you might be missing an important aspect of what is going on during this period of time.
There are still bar mitzvah celebrations with acapella singers and there are songs that can be purchased online that are sung without musical accompaniment, but these are just part of our compulsion to circumvent in some “legal” manner whatever it is that Jewish law sends in our direction.
In the meantime, the food stores and supermarkets are gearing up for what will be a three-day observance of Shavuos this year. I’ve been told by supermarket managers and executives that, surprisingly, Shavuos food shopping is busier and a bigger boon for the stores than Pesach shopping.
I’m not sure why. Perhaps the focus on dairy foods or the flexibility that dairy menus offer means buying more things so as to create intricate dairy dishes. Perhaps a roast is just a roast but dairy can allow you to move in a multiplicity of creative culinary directions.
And that reminds me of one other thing I always heard as a kid while I was growing up in my parents’ home. My father used to say that on Sukkos you can eat whatever you desire but not where you desire. On Pesach, he added, you can eat wherever you want but certainly not what you want. Shavuos, however, my father always said was his favorite yom tov because you are able to eat whatever you want wherever you want.
But that is slightly down the road. First there is the matter of where to get a haircut next week, and, yes, we have to send in the response cards for those Lag B’Omer weddings.