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Omer - the eighth day

The period between Pesach and Shavuot is known as the Omer. In ancient times, an omer, a measure of flour, was offered on each of these 49 days in the hope of persuading God to grant a good barley harvest. Later tradition identified this period as the waiting time between leaving Egypt and receiving the Revelation at Sinai.

Following a commandment in Leviticus 23, Jews count each day of the Omer, and our new Siddur even gives us a special thought for each of the 49 days. The Omer is also a time of semi-mourning - hair is not cut, music is not played, weddings do not happen – all in all a very subdued interim between the two celebrations at each end. The exception is on the 33rd day, known by its Hebrew number as Lag BaOmer, when the mourning restrictions are lifted.

I rather like the Omer, just for the sheer nonsense of it all. Leviticus makes no mention of mourning during the Omer, yet the tradition was clearly well-established by the Talmudic period. The Talmud asserts that the mourning restrictions were lifted on Lag BaOmer because that day marked the end of a plague which killed 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, yet the same source mentions that plague as a reason for the mourning customs in the first place! So if we mourn because of the plague, and we stop mourning because it ended, then why do the mourning restrictions resume from the 34th day of the Omer to its end?

Chassidim have a different explanation for Lag BaOmer. According to their tradition, it is the Yahrzeit of Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai, to whom is attributed the Zohar, the source-book for Kabbalah. They mark this special day by making pilgrimage to his tomb at Meron, and by lighting bonfires, though the connection between the bonfires and the Rabbi seems in itself to be a bit of a mystery. So for Chassidim, the mourning restrictions, for which there is no reliable explanation in the first place, are lifted because of a Yahrzeit!

Yom HaAtzmaut also falls during the Omer, but unfortunately not on the 33rd day, which is why many traditional Jews are reluctant to celebrate on that day. Apparently it is permissible to lift these unsubstantiated restrictions for a dead Rabbi or for the end of a plague, but not for the birth of a Jewish State after 2,000 years.

If you don’t think this is enough nonsense, here’s some more – the ‘plague’ was in reality, say many scholars, a euphemism for a revolution against Rome, which cost many lives but had some minor success on the 33rd day. So really, a minor revolutionary success in a failed attempt to establish Jewish political independence is sufficient to justify an about-face of Halacha, but the genuine establishment of a truly independent Jewish State is not!

In practice, Jews count the Omer and traditional Jews observe the restrictions, relaxing them on the 33rd day. They also celebrate Israel’s independence and pretend that is OK, either by not calling it a celebration or by turning a blind eye to the Halacha they accuse us Progressives of breaking. Either way, this is good for Judaism. We need this nonsense, we need the inconsistency, we need the doublethink, the delusion, the sheer silliness of it all. We need to be reminded that rationality is not enough, that our rich and beautiful culture, like any other, is incomplete without a bit of nonsense to hold it together.

Europeans shake hands to show they are not about to stab each other with swords. They say “Bless you” to exorcise the Devil who enters their body during the sneeze. They incorporate Easter eggs and Yule logs into Christianity and name days of the week after Norse gods. It’s all nonsense, but it’s home to some of us, and we like it like that. So let’s not mock our Jewish nonsense either, it’s what makes our Jewish home a place to be happy in and to love.

Rabbi Cliff Cohen



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