According to the rabbis, the bonfires are lit not only to commemorate the death of bar Yochai, but also to remember 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died while fighting the Romans during the last of the Jewish-Roman wars (called the Bar Kochba Revolt, c.132-135 AD). Since Jewish tradition assumed that the Messiah would be a military leader who would deliver the Jews and usher in world peace, Rabbi Akiva (incorrectly) surmised that Shimon bar Kochba, the leader of the Jewish resistance, was the Jewish Messiah -- based on an esoteric reading of Numbers 24:17: כּוֹכָב מִיַּעֲקב - "A star shall come out of Jacob" ("Bar Kokhba" means "son of a star" in Aramaic). His tragic endorsement led to death of countless Jews and further alienated the Messianic Jewish community from Israel. The eventual defeat of the Jews by Emperor Hadrian marked the sure beginning of the Jewish Diaspora from the Promised Land. The province of Judaea was then renamed "Palestine" and Jerusalem was called Aelia Capitolina.
Customs of Lag B'Omer
In modern Israel Lag B'Omer is a school holiday. The Talmud (Yevamot 62b) recalls the tragedy of Bar Kochba and commemorates it as a "Scholar's Festival," in honor of Rabbi Akiva and Shimon bar Yochai (who is frequently quoted in the Talmud). Families go on picnics and outings. Special family games are played outdoors. During the previous evening, bonfires are lit in open spaces in cities and towns throughout the country.
Because of the death of Akiva's students, during the 49 days of the Omer Count it is customary to observe a period of semi-mourning: weddings are not held, hair is not cut, and music is not heard. On Lag B'Omer, however, this ban is lifted, since the fighting is said to have ceased on that day. Among traditional Jews, the custom called Upsherin - giving a boy his first haircut (at age 3, when he begins the study of Torah) is often performed on this day.
Should believers in Yeshua observe Lag B'Omer?
Lag B'Omer is a holiday that most Christians and Messianic Jews should be wary about celebrating, for the following reasons:
- The holiday is not commanded in the Torah but derives entirely from Rabbinic and occultic tradition.
- Rabbi Akiva's false belief that Bar Kochba was the Messiah led to the needless death of thousands of Jews and incited great persecution among Jewish believers in Yeshua. After all, how could these Jewish believers in Yeshua take up arms against the Romans on behalf of a false Messiah? Since they protested, they were considered traitors to the Jewish state and were ostracized by their fellow Jews. The split between Pharisaic Judaism and Messianic Judaism was now firmly in place, and this is surely as tragic an event for the followers of Yeshua as for the Jewish people.
- According to tradition, the Zohar was "revealed" (i.e., "channeled") to the Jewish world in the thirteenth century by Moses De Leon, who claimed that the book contained the mystical writings of the second-century Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai - a claim that most Jewish scholars regard as patently false.
- Even granting that the Zohar is the product of Bar Yochai, it is dubious that he should be revered as a "saint" or great sage. Bar Yochai does not acknowledge Yeshua as the Messiah and often speculates on matters that transcend or contradict clearly revealed truth given in the Jewish Scriptures. In fact, much of the Zohar and its teachings derives from Greek mysticism (i.e., Plotinus) and second century Gnosticism that was repackaged for the thinking of the Middle Ages.
- "Pop Kabbalah" is a deceptive system of thought that seduces people into denying that they are sinners in need of salvation. For the Kabbalist, human nature is essentially "asleep" or in a state of "forgetfulness" regarding its divine origin. People are really made in the "image of God," which (for the Kabbalist) means that each of us are essentially divine beings... Each soul is a miniature version of God Himself, like a fragmented holographic image. Human beings are not "totally depraved" or victims of "original sin," but are rather covered up with kelipot ("shells") that need to be removed so that the "original spark" of God can shine through. According to Kabbalah, every soul is "pure in essence," and the only "salvation" to speak of is to become enlightened (i.e., to remember the truth of who and what we really are).
For the follower of the Messiah, the blood atonement of Yeshua is absolutely vital for personal salvation, and all of creation begins and ends with the One who is First and Last... (For more information, see the Kabbalah pages).