At Passover we marked the physical liberation of the Jewish nation. We celebrated freedom from slavery and freedom to openly worship the One True God. Fifty days later the process is completed when the Jewish nation experienced its spiritual birth by being given the Torah. This day is commemorated by the festival of Shavuot
The 50-day period between Passover and Shavuot is called Sefirah Omer or Counting of the Omer. To Count the Omer is Biblically mandated in Leviticus 23:15, “From the day after the day of rest — that is, from the day you bring the sheaf for waving — you are to count seven full weeks…”
The Counting of the Omer period is spent in anticipation for the giving of the Torah. While the Jewish nation escaped from captivity in Egypt at the Exodus, they knew their freedom was not yet complete. They needed the Word of God to complete their spiritual destiny. As a result the Counting the Omer is spent as a quiet time with restrictions so not to distract from the focus on the preparations to receive the Torah. Traditionally weddings, haircuts, and listening to live muic are restricted during this period.
However, on the thirty-third day following Passover is an observance called Lag b’Omer. On this day not only are the restrictions lifted, but sadness is forbidden on this day. This day is not found in the Torah, it is a cultural and historical observance by the Jewish nation.
In the 2nd century CE to the shock of the Roman government, the Jewish population in Israel revolted. This has come to be known as the Bar Kochba Revolt for its military leader, Shimon Bar Kochba. The revolt was initially successful because the Romans thought the Jews thoroughly defeated and obliterated. So much so they erected the famous Arch of Titus on which is inscribed “Judea Capita” ― Judea is finished.
However, the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people continued to struggle to keep Jewish life alive. In the name of this national pride, Bar Kochba rallied thousands to the cause. He taught the Jewish army to utilize guerilla warfare, engaging the Roman army in surprise locations and inflicting heavy casualties with sneak attacks. The revolt was initially successful and Bar Kochba took much land establishing Jewish communities on it.
Shimon Bar Kochba ruled over an independent Jewish state for nearly three years. They announced it was the era of the redemption of Israel, contracts were signed, officials appointed. They even minted large quantities of their own coinage struck over foreign coins.
However, the Romans were not going to give up. They eventually changed their tactics and began to siege Jewish population centers. Ultimately, the revolt was brutally quashed. Retribution by the Romans for the revolt was ruthless, destroying 50 Jewish fortified cities and 985 villages. The Jews were homeless and thousands died of starvation and disease. This marked the last time the Jewish people had their own nation until the modern State of Israel was born in 1948.
On day 33 of the Omer Count, Lag b’Omer, it is believed that Bar Kochba's army reconquered Jerusalem. And so in honor of this great victory, we break from the solemnness of readying for the Torah and we celebrate. The grand custom of this day is to light bonfires and the symbol of the day is the bow and arrow. These traditions were developed in the modern era.
Those struggling to establish the State of Israel took inspiration from Bar Kochba. They knew it was possible for a small Jewish army fighting for their homeland to defeat a much larger, much more powerful army. They also knew that if successful Jews would have their own nation for the first time in two millennia with Jerusalem as the capital.
On Lag b’Omer we celebrate the Jewish spirit and tenacity. The day after Lag b’Omer we return to the regular observances of the Counting of the Omer. We wait in quiet anticipation for 17 more days for Shavuot and the giving of our blessed Torah.