To Jewish boys impatient for the chance to beat a drum in a marching band, and little girls who fancy twirling a tasseled baton, Lag B’omer could not come soon enough.
The day-long festival brings a rush of joyous relief during a seven-week stretch of no celebrations. It’s the 33rd day of the Omer—the 49 days that are counted between Passover and Shavuot which mark a period of sadness in Jewish history.
Tradition has it that 24,000 students of the great sage, Rabbi Akiva, died during this period. On the 33rd day of the Omer, the plague came to an end, and the Jewish people saw good reason for joy. The date is also the yahrzeit of the second century mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, traditionally regarded as the author of Zohar, the primary text of the Kabbalah. His contribution—revealing the esoteric dimension of Torah—is another reason to celebrate.
And celebrate we do.
Though the day was always marked by festivities, early in his leadership, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory, seized upon the opportunity to celebrate Lag B’omer themes of Jewish unity with unusual pomp and circumstance. It seemed a wild idea, but the children needed no convincing: Imagine a parade made up of Jewish children marching to the drumbeat of traditional songs . . .
Beginning in the sixties, Jewish schools from the tri-state New York area all turned out to watch the floats designed by the children on Jewish themes, as they cruised along Eastern Parkway, a main Brooklyn thoroughfare, while the Rebbe came out to greet the children. It was a colorful sight, and the idea caught on, with the Rebbe urging every Jewish community to organize similar celebrations that would involve the children in the excitement of the day. Today, Lag B’omer parades are ubiquitous worldwide.
In Israel, the day is celebrated nationwide with bonfires, parades and pilgrimages to the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in the northern town of Meron.