It's Lag BaOmer - Let's Have a Picnic!

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Lag BaOmer falls on May 2, 2010 – the perfect time to head outdoors for wonderful family fun.

In Hebrew numerals, the first two letters of Lag BaOmer, the lamed and gimmel, add up to the number 33 (lamed is 30, gimmel is 3). Lag BaOmer is the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer and falls right between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. It's a day of fun and celebration when many head outdoors for bonfires and picnics.

To understand the festival let’s tackle a few basics:

What is the Omer and Why Take a Break on the 33rd Day?

In the time of the Holy Temple, the “Omer” referred to a measure of barley (slightly less than a gallon), brought to the Temple on the second day of Passover. Fifty days later, on the holiday of Shavuot, the first offerings of wheat were brought to the Temple. Since Shavuot is the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah, the rabbis teach that when Moses told the Israelites they would receive the Torah from G-d on the 50th day, they starting counting in excited anticipation.

Better known is the idea that the Omer is a mourning period in remembrance of the followers of the great sage of blessed memory, Rabbi Akiva, 24,000 of whom died in a horrible plague in the time between Passover and Shavuot during the 135 C.E. Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans. During the Omer, many Jews follow mourning practices like not shaving, getting married, attending celebrations or cutting their hair.

Lag BaOmer is the yahrzeit or hillula (day of commemoration) for Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, one of the best known of Rabbi Akiva’s  followers and the writer of the Zohar (the central book of Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism).  Before his death, Bar Yochai told his students not to mourn his death and he's been celebrated ever since.

Celebrating Lag BaOmer in Israel and the Diaspora

In Israel, many people go to Rabbi Bar Yochai's  grave on Mount Meron  in the Galilee.  There is a belief that if you pray at the Rabbi’s grave, especially on Lag BaOmer, your prayers will be answered. Many families also bring their three-year-old sons to Mt. Meron for a first haircut, also known as an upsherin. Outside of Israel, it is also popular to cut kids' hair.

In and out of Israel, people celebrate happy occasions like weddings, light bonfires, have Israeli singing and dancing, hold sporting competitions and have picnics. In Israel, the most popular foods are very basic, but yummy … wrapping up some potatoes and onions in tinfoil and throwing them into the fire.

One last interesting tidbit … especially in Israel, children often make their own bows and arrows and play with them on Lag BaOmer.  One explanation is that Rabbi Bar Yochai was such a tzadik (righteous sage) that he represented promise of the world’s continuity just like the rainbow showed to Noah after the flood. In Hebrew, the word keshet (rainbow) also means “bow,” so children play with bows and arrows to celebrate Bar Yochai!

If you're planning a Lag BaOmer picnic, try my kosher Southern-Style Baked Chicken recipe , it's divine. Add a cold bottle of kosher wine for those of drinking age, some juice boxes for the kids, some kosher salads and voilà !

Happy Lag BaOmer!

Are you planning a picnic? Tell us about your favorite picnic foods by leaving us a comment.