The first mentions of the holiday reveal two primary characteristics: outings into nature and the marking of the day as the point at which all the restrictions of mourning that are present from Passover until Lag BaOmer are lifted. The origins of the mourning period lie in the story of the death of 24 thousand of Rabbi Akiva’s students. According to the story, the students died of a plague that ended on Lag BaOmer.
Until the 16th century, apart from the custom of the lifting of mourning restrictions, we have no evidence regarding celebrations of any kind on this day. Beginning in that period, however, HaAri followers made Lag BaOmer into a day of hilulah (public feasting) in honor of Rashbi, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, R. Akiva’s most prominent student. The popular tradition of the HaAri students is that Lag BaOmer is the date on which Rashbi was born, the date he died, the date he exited the cave, and also the date he got married. The students’ hilulah included lighting a bonfire as well prayers and dancing.
The popular tradition of Lag BaOmer has been tied to the Bar Kokhva revolt. The custom of lighting bonfires has been attributed to a means of communication utilized in Bar Kokhva’s days, by which messages were passed between rebel posts. Herein developed the tradition of using bows and arrows, and youth venturing out into nature to engage in war games. Another Lag BaOmer custom that has its origins with the HaAri students is the “chalakeh” ceremony, in which a three-year old boy gets his first haircut.
The Zionist Movement regarded Bar Kokhva as a symbol of bravery and independence. The fact that the founding of various organizations and Zionist events are recognized on Lag BaOmer can be attributed to this. For example, the founding of the Ahavat Zion Organization (“Love of Zion”) in 1885, the Zionist youth movements holiday (a tradition started in Warsaw in 1916), the founding of the “Bnei Akiva” (religious youth movement) as well as the founding of the paramilitary youth organization, the Gadna (1941), the founding of the Palmach (military resistance organization in Palestine, 1942), the founding of the IDF (1948), and more.
Lag BaOmer and its many symbols were embraced by the Zionist movement and the Eretz-Israel settlement prior to the establishment of the State, but the holiday did not win an audience among the adults of the general population, and so it remained a bonfire celebration for the youth. The orthodox community lifts the mourning restriction on Lag BaOmer and so many marriage ceremonies are performed on this day. In addition, the hilula in honor of Shimon bar Yochai at Meiron attracts tens of thousands of participants who also perform the “chalakeh” ceremonies, as well as celebrations of song, dance, bonfires, and general merriment. The “chalakeh” ceremony is a rite of passage symbolizing the entrance of the toddler into the world of men after three years of having mostly been cared for by women. This is evident in the public cutting of the boy’s long hair, which makes him look feminine, and in the taking of the three year-old into his father’s tallish (prayer shawl).
The hilula tradition at Meiron, whose origins lie with the HaAri students of the 16th century, includes unique songs and music. The Music Department at the National Library has in its possession numerous recordings of Lag BaOmer songs. Among these, “Medura Hora Hora Li Shalhevet
”, by Emanuel Amiran performed by Tova Ben-Tzvi and the Kol Israel Orchestra, “Vaamartem Ko Lechai
”, in the version of Persian Jews performed by Yona Dardashti and accompanied by Gideon Elias, and “Bar Yochai Nimshachta Ashrecha
” in a Sephardic version from the Balkan communities, performed by a band of singers, a chorus and orchestra, conducted by Shimon Cohen.
This is a rich tradition that demonstrates a blend of Hassidic music and Galileean music, taken from a variety of sources (Arabic, Turkish, Jewish), alongside hundred year-old lyrics. This abundance of musical sources in Meiron music can be heard on the compilation CD “Call of the Mountain
The National Library’s collections also hold numerous posters by various organizations inviting the public to take part in Lag BaOmer festivities. Below are a few examples.