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The Mysterious Origin of Lag B’Omer

The 33rd day of the Omer comes out on the 18th of Iyyar. When one looks at the sources prior to the period of the Rishonim, one finds something very interesting. In the pre-Rishonim period, the 18th of Iyyar is recorded as a fast day, commemorating the death of Joshua. For example, this fast day is mentioned by the famous paytan R. Eleazar Kallir (c. 600). It is mentioned in other sources from Palestine and Egypt in the subsequent centuries as well. These early sources are collected by Shulamit Elitzur, in her work Lammah Tzammnu.

What is the earliest reference to the holiday we know as Lag B’Omer? This is found in a brief anonymous annotation in the London manuscript of Mahzor Vitry. Most likely, the author of these annotations was R. Isaac b. Durbal, who died around 1175. He seems to have been from northern France, as he was a student of R. Tam. In his annotations on a section on the calendar, R. Isaac points out that Purim and Lag B’Omer fall on the same day of the week every year. But his remarks are brief and shed no light on the origin of the holiday.

There is a widely quoted statement by the Meiri (d. 1316) that implies that Lag B’Omer was already a holiday at the time of the “Geonim.” But there is no other evidence for Lag B’Omer as a holiday in the Geonic period. And as stated earlier, in the period prior to the Rishonim, the 18th day of Iyyar was observed as a fast day. Therefore, it is likely that Meiri, in his reference to “Geonim” here, did not mean the rabbinic authorities in Babylonia from the late 6th to early 11th centuries. Rather, he meant only the rabbinic authorities in Europe who preceded him slightly. There are many other examples of later Rishonim like the Meiri using the term “Geonim” to mean the earlier Rishonim.

Where did the idea that R. Akiva’s students died on the 33rd day of the Omer come from? According to the Talmud (Yevamot 62b), R. Akiva had 24,00 students and they all died in one period, mi-pesah ve-ad atzeret. The Sefer Ha-Manhig of R. Abraham b. Nathan, composed in Toledo in 1204, tells us that R. Zerahiah (author of Ha-Maor, d. 1186) found a sefer yashan from Spain that reported that the students died mi-pesaḥ ve-ad pros ha-atzeret. The Sefer Ha-Manhig then interpreted pros ha-atzeret to mean “15 days before atzeret.” He assumed that the word pros here was a Hebrew word and that it meant “broken” or “half,” and assumed it was used here to mean “half of 30.” R. Abraham mentions a custom in France and Provence of allowing marriages from the 33rd day onwards and then uses this explanation to attempt to justify this custom.

But the word pros can also be interpreted in accordance with its meaning in Greek: before. It turns out that when the word pros is used in connection with the timing of a holiday in rabbinic sources, it is almost always the meaning in Greek that is being used, and the meaning is “just before the holiday.” (This Greek word is the origin of the prefix in English: pre-, and of the word prefix.) Moreover, in our case, the argument for interpreting the word pros as “just before” is even stronger. We already have a source that records that the students of R. Akiva died mi-pesah ve-ad atzeret. When we find another source that records that they died mi-pesah ve-ad pros ha-atzeret, our presumption should be that the sources can be reconciled. Therefore, we should interpret the second source in a manner consistent with the first source, and not in a manner that creates a contradiction between them.

Close reading of Sefer Ha-Manhig reveals that his explanation was merely an attempt at a rationale for a puzzling pre-existing custom to marry from the 33rd day onwards. He does not have any earlier tradition that the students of R. Akiva stopped dying on the 33rd day. (And his suggestion that pros meant “half of 30” did not do a good enough job of explaining the custom of marrying starting on the 33rd day, since 49 less 15 is 34, not 33.)

To sum up: In 1202, there is a clear reference by R. Abraham b. Nathan to a custom in France and Provence of allowing marriages from the 33rd day onwards. The existence of the custom cannot be denied, even though the explanation for the custom suggested by R. Abraham cannot be accepted. The custom is also referred to in annotations to Mahzor Vitry that are most likely those of R. Isaac b. Durbal. He was writing a few decades earlier. Most probably, he was writing in France. Based on all the evidence, it seems that the origin of Lag B’Omer lies in 11th– or 12th-century France or Provence. From there, it expanded over the centuries, once it was linked to the cessation of the death of the students of R. Akiva. But we still do not know the true origin of the holiday and its leniency.

(The above is a summary of a detailed article that was published in the most recent issue of Hakirah, vol. 20.)

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. His recently published book: Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (Kodesh Press, 2015) is available at the Judaica House in Teaneck and at amazon.com. He can be reached at [email protected].

 

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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