Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle.
I understand that there are various mystical rites connected with Lag b’Omer. Can you tell me about them?
From the sixteenth century onwards, Lag b’Omer became identified with the day on which the second-century teacher, Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai (according to the Cabalists, the author of the Zohar), departed this life. The term used is hilula (“marriage”) of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, a reference to the mystical idea that at his death the tsaddik’s soul becomes wedded to the celestial realities. For this reason Lag b’Omer is considered to be an especially joyous occasion.
Among the Chasidim, for the same reason, the Yahrzeit of a celebrated Chasidic master is celebrated as a minor feast. On Lag b’Omer devotees from all over Israel flock on pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai at Meron near Safed. On this day bonfires are kindled there and in open spaces in Jerusalem and other Israeli cities. It is the custom for little boys of three to have their first haircut at Meron on this day, leaving the long peot (sidelocks) cultivated by the Chasidim.
A less innocent custom is that of burning garments of value at Meron on this day. A number of rabbis in the last century objected to the practice because it smacked of superstition and especially because it is a sinful waste. The famous Rabbi of Lemberg, Joseph Saul Nathanson, wrote, for example, that it would be far better to sell the garments and use the money to support the poor of Erets Yisrael.
Some rabbis objected to the very idea that the anniversary of a tsaddik’s death should be an occasion for merriment. On the contrary, it appears from the Talmudic tradition that it should be a day of solemnity, fasting and repentance. In reply the Rabbi of Safed, Samuel Heller, published a booklet in 1874 to defend the custom.
“It is true,” he writes, “that pointless waste is strictly for bidden, but here the waste is not purposeless but in honour of the great saint.”
I have witnessed the bonfires in Jerusalem on the night of Lag b’Omer and it cannot be denied that there are some weird goings-on. Groups of the pious shuffle around chanting mystic hymns while the fire blazes and the hymns themselves appear to be not in praise of God but of the saint. As the old lady said after a performance of Macbeth: “How very different from the home-life of our own dear queen!”
What is the significance of Shabbat Para and the Red Heifer rite?
The rite of the Red Cow (not “heifer,” in spite of the popularity of this description) is found in the book of Numbers, chapter 19. A red cow without blemish and on which no yoke had been laid was to be slaughtered, burned to ashes and the ashes used to purify anyone who had come into contact with a corpse by sprinkling on him the ashes mixed with water from a fountain. Unless the purification rite had been carried out, the contaminated person was strictly forbidden to enter the sanctuary.
The reason why this portion of the Torah is read on a Sabbath before the month of Nisan is that in Temple times the Passover pilgrims were thereby warned to purify themselves in preparation for their intended visit to the Temple. Jewish teachers have read into the custom of reciting this portion at this particular time the further idea that spiritual purity is a prerequisite of true freedom. It is well-known that the Talmudic rabbis sought to reject any magical interpretation of the ancient rite. It is not the corpse which contaminates, they say, nor the water and ashes which purify in themselves, but God commands it that His will be obeyed.
Nevertheless, numerous attempts have been made at discovering the meaning of the rite. The most puzzling feature is the rule that those performing the act of purification become themselves contaminated. Dr Hertz suggests that this is a good lesson for all who work for good causes. All too frequently in human history worthy people have allowed themselves to be corrupted by their ruthless enthusiasms, their love of power and their self-righteousness.
Another symbolic meaning that has been given to the rite connects it with the sin of the golden calf. Because Israel worshipped the calf death came into the world after it had been abolished through Israel’s acceptance of the Torah. Rashi quotes R. Moses Ha-Darshan that the cow is the mother of the calf. When an infant soils the king’s palace the mother must clear up the mess! On this interpretation the redness of the cow may represent the golden colour of the golden calf. Or, possibly, red represents the colour of sin: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1, 18), or, again, possibly, the colour of blood.
A further idea has been noted. The corpse and the Temple are incompatibles. Unlike a death-centred religion like the Egyptian, the religion of Israel dissociates itself from preoccupation with death. In the language of Jewish tradition, our Torah is a Torah of life.
Why are tombstone consecrations allowed on Rosh Chodesh in cemeteries under the aegis of the United Synagogue, but not in those belonging to the Federation of Synagogues?
Rosh Chodesh is a minor festival (there are indications, though, that in biblical times, it was a major one) in that fasting on the day is forbidden, Hallel is recited (“half-Hallel”) and funeral orations are not in order.
The principle here is that private grief yields, to some extent, to communal rejoicing, just as no marriages are to be celebrated during the three weeks, private rejoicing yielding to communal mourning.
But there is nothing in the sources to forbid a tombstone consecration on Rosh Chodesh. Indeed, there is hardly anything at all in the sources about tombstone setting (the term “consecration” is never used and is, strictly speaking, quite inappropriate for that which marks a grave).
I can only imagine that the policy to which you refer of disallowing tombstone settings on Rosh Chodesh is not because the setting per se is forbidden, but because it is customary nowadays for a eulogy of the deceased to be delivered, and this might offend against the rule that funeral orations are not permitted to be given on Rosh Chodesh.
What is the Omer and when do we “count” it?
We read in Leviticus (23, 9 to 15) that on the “day after the Sabbath” of Passover a sheaf (omer) or, as the rabbis understand it, a “measure” of barley was to be brought to the Temple and waved before God. No new grain was to be eaten until this offering had been brought. The Pharisees, followed by the rabbis, understood the expression “after the Sabbath” to mean “after the first day of the festival.” Therefore the omer was brought on the second day of Passover.
From this day 49 days were to be counted until the festival of Shavuot. This practice is still carried out (see Singer’s Prayer Book, p. 367). No reason is stated explicitly why the omer should be “counted,” but a very popular interpretation in the Middle Ages was that the freedom celebrated on Passover receives its complete fulfilment on Shavuot, the festival celebrating the giving of the Torah, submission to which makes a man truly free. Hence the days after the first day of Passover are counted with longing in anticipation of the coming festival of Shavuot.
Among illustrations given by the Jewish teachers are of a prisoner anxiously waiting to be freed, the visit of a friend looked forward to, or a bride and bridegroom counting the days until they are united.
What is the significance of the date 5736—from when does the counting date?
The date 5736 is “from the creation of the world,” i.e. from the “day” on which the world came into being.
This is, of course, if the creation narrative in the book of Genesis is taken literally. But there is no Jewish dogma that the narrative has to be taken literally. Those many people today who are convinced that the world is very much older and who, therefore, interpret Genesis in a less literal fashion, need not be disturbed by the conventional method of dating which is, after all, only a convention, not an essential part of the Jewish religion.
In fact, this method of dating is not referred to at all anywhere in the Talmudic literature. It is found from about the ninth century onwards.
The famous French talmudic commentators, the Tosafists (to Gittin 80b), in approximately the twelfth century, refer to the method of dating from the creation of the world as the common practice “nowadays.” Thus the method began to be adopted around the ninth century and became universal a century or two later.
The older method of dating was from the king’s coronation in order to pay respect to the king.
If the Common Era emanates from the birth of Jesus, how is the Jewish calendar calculated, or what event signified its beginning?
The present method of reckoning (this dates from the Middle Ages and was not known earlier) is from the creation of the world. Thus in the ketuba (marriage certificate), for example, the date this year is given as 5737 from the creation of the world.
The date is arrived at by a study of the biblical chronology back to the creation of Adam and Eve. Of course, very few of us would now accept literally the view that the world is less than six thousand years old.
Our method of dating is a convention and a remarkable one at that, since it means that Jews believe that God’s will for mankind came into operation, as it were, not with any particular event in human history, but with the beginning of creation.
9 August 1968:
Why is it possible to have the Fast of Av on the 10th of the month as it occurred this year?
The Talmud (Megillah 5b) tells us that it was reported that Rabbi Judah the Prince wanted to abolish the fast of the ninth of Av but his colleagues refused to allow it. A later teacher reported that it was only his intention to abolish the fast when it fell on the Sabbath, but his colleagues argued that the fast day can and should be postponed to the following day. This is the opinion followed except that on such a postponed fast it is permitted for the father of a boy who has had his brit on that day and the mohel and sandek to eat after noonday (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 559, 9).
11 December 1970:
What is the significance of the minor fasts known as sheni chamishi vesheni which occur in Marcheshvan and Iyar?
We read in the book of Job (1, 5) that after a feast Job would offer sacrifices in case his sons had sinned through drinking too much and the like. In medieval France and Germany the custom arose on the basis of this to have a fast on a Monday, Thursday and Monday of the month [. . . illegible] fall.
15 January 1971:
On Tevet 26 we observe Yom Kippur Katan. What is its significance?
The “minor Yom Kippur” fast day is observed on the eve of each new moon (Rosh Chodesh). The custom is late but has been traced back to Germany in the middle of the fifteenth century. The name Yom Kippur Katan was given to it by the Cabalists of Safed in the sixteenth century and its widespread adoption was under the influence of these masters who taught that it was necessary to enter the new month cleansed of the taint of sin.
In fact, the observance of this day is bound up with the Cabalistic doctrine of the “exile of the Shechina” represented by the waning of the moon. The interested reader should consult G. Scholem: On the Cabala and its Symbolism, pp. 151-153.
19 February 1971:
Why is Tal Umatar introduced into the Amida on December 4 and is a solar date used elsewhere in the Jewish calendar?
The simple answer is that a prayer for rain should obviously be recited at the rainy season, and this depends on the solar, not the lunar, calendar. The actual dating is, however, very complicated. The interested student will find an excellent treatment of the legal discussion in S. Sevin’s Ha-Moadim ba-Halachah, pp. 149-155.
The only other instance of a solar date in the Jewish calendar is that of the “blessing over the sun,” which is recited once every 28 years (for details see the Soncino Talmud and notes Tractate Berachot, pp. 369-370).
26 March 1971:
What is the significance of Shabbat Hachodesh?
Shabbat Hachodesh (“The Sabbath of the New Moon”) is the first sabbath of the month of Nisan on which Exodus chapter 12, verses 1 to 20, is read, which begins with the instruction: “This month (hachodesh) shall mark for you the beginning of the months.”
The months of the year were to be counted from the spring month (Nisan) because in this month Israel was delivered from Egyptian bondage. The reading of this portion at this time of the year (together with the readings on the other three “special” Sabbaths, of which this is the last) is very old, preceding the other fixed readings from the Torah.
The main reason for the choice of this reading is to remind the people of the first Passover in Egypt and to warn them to prepare for the celebration of the coming festival by calling their attention to the laws governing leaven and unleaven, all of which is mentioned in this portion.
Jewish teachers have also read into it the lesson of spiritual renewal (the new moon) as a prerequisite for freedom.