Bar Yochai! With oil of sacred anointment
were you anointed from the holy measure
You bore the headplate, a crown of holiness,
bound upon your head is your glory…
Bar Yochai! In a goodly dwelling did you settle
on the day you ran, the day you fled,
In rocky caves where you stopped –
there you acquired your glory and your strength…
Bar Yochai! Fortunate is she who bore you,
fortunate is the people that learns from you,
And fortunate are those who can plumb your mystery,
garbed in the priestly breastplate
and Your Ineffable Name.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is the traditional author of the Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism. Though most people no longer regard him as the actual author of the Zohar, it is the spiritual life that he led which is important. Bar Yochai lived for twelve years in a cave meditating on the Divine mysteries.
The passages that lie at the heart of the Zohar are awe-inspiring. They describe a sublime vision of the supernal reality – a vision that could only have come from a profound spiritual revelation. It is the product of a life dedicated to prayer and meditation such as the one led by Shimon Bar Yochai.
According to the tradition, we count the seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot – the time that the omer – the new barley offering was brought to the Temple. Lag Ba-Omer is the thirty-third day of this seven-week period. It is also the day on which Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai passed away.
The Midrash tells us that the Children of Israel reached the base of Mount Sinai on Lag Ba-Omer. Therefore, one can view Lag Ba-Omer as the first glimmering of the revelation experience that was to follow on Shavuot. It is these first glimmerings that are revealed each year on Lag Ba-Omer.
Lag Ba-Omer is a day for contemplating the inner reality. It is a time of a very special kind of inner awakening, when the hidden wisdom and vision stand revealed. This is the reason this day is associated with Shimon Bar Yochai.
There are other levels to this revelation as well. The Torah describes the arrival of the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai with the following words:
“Vayichan sham Yisrael neged hahar” – “And there Israel camped before the mountain.” – Exodus 19, 2
Unusually, the Torah uses the singular vayichan for the verb “to camp”, instead of the plural vayachanu. The medieval commentator, Rashi, immediately notes this change and comments that the singular form is used because the Torah is telling us that when Israel reached Sinai they were acting as “one man and one heart”.
When Israel drew close to the mountain, the awareness arose within each of them of the special spiritual bond that they all shared. Suddenly, they realized that we not just a group of separate individuals, rather they were all one spiritual body – one Soul.
The Alexander Rebbe points out the Hebrew word vayichan – to camp can also be read as vayichain – to be filled with grace. As soon as they reached the base of Mount Sinai, the light of God’s grace began to shine upon Israel.
This Divine illumination transported the Children of Israel so that they no longer saw themselves as simply a people or nation, but as a spiritual community with a unique purpose and mission within the Plan of God.
We cannot attain such a vision by intellectual reasoning or emotional feeling. It comes as a result of the direct experience of the higher reality. Therefore, it must be pursued by following an inner path like the Kabbalah, for only such a teaching can lead us to the supernal worlds of unity and oneness. This is another reason why Lag Ba-Omer is linked to Shimon Bar Yochai.
According to the tradition, the Omer is a time of mourning and reduced celebration. In the Talmud, (Yebamot 62B) we are told that we observe this time of mourning because twenty thousand students of Rabbi Akiva died in a plague during this period. On Lag Ba-Omer, however, the plague miraculously stopped. Since then, Lag Ba-Omer has become a day of special rejoicing.
Why did the plague stop on Lag Ba-Omer?
The Alexander Rebbe explains that the answer lies hidden in the special spiritual quality of this day.
According to the Kabbalistic tradition, each day of the Omer is connected to a combination of two of the seven sephirot from hesed to Malkut. Each week is linked to one particular sephirah, and each day of the week is linked to one sephirah. We begin with the seventh level of the seventh sephirah and descend until the last level of the first sephirah. This progression reflects the descent of the Divine Presence from the higher realm down into the physical. The first day, therefore, is hesed shebehesed – the mercy of mercy, and the last day is malkut shebemalkut – the kingship of kingship.
The particular combination of sephirot for Lag Ba-Omer is hod shebehod – the splendour of splendour. When the energy of hodshebehod flows into our consciousness, we experience the majestic splendour of the inner realm. This Divine splendour is then reflected, in turn, in everyone and everything that we see.
The passage in the Talmud that tells us about the plague also states that the plague occurred because the students of Rabbi Akiva did not show each other love and respect. The reason that they behaved in this manner, the Alexander Rebbe suggests, was because they related to each other as personalities. When a large group of individual personalities live and compete together, friction and resentment are bound to arise.
On Lag Ba-Omer, however, the energy of hodshebehod poured into the hearts of the students, so that they saw each other not as personalities but as souls. This immediately transformed their interaction and opened the door to reconciliation and healing.
Lag Ba-Omer is a day of Divine grace. It is a time of touching the higher wisdom. It is a day to see the beauty and splendour of Israel. Lag Ba-Omer is a moment of blessing when we can see beyond the appearances of external reality and discover the higher truth that lies within.
copyright © 2008 by Yoel Glick
first published 22/5/2008
- Zemirot L’Shabbat, ArtScroll Mesorah Series.↵